Nevada’s plan to conduct its June 9 primary election mostly by mail survived its first legal test in federal court Thursday when a judge upheld the state's authority to change the normal procedures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du rejected an attempt by a conservative voting rights group to block the primary based on concerns about the potential for voter fraud.
Another hearing is scheduled next week in state court in Carson City, where Nevada Democrats are trying to halt the current plan based on different concerns about the impact on minorities, the poor and the elderly.
Du ruled in Reno Thursday that the plaintiffs in the federal case represented by lawyers for the right-leaning Voters’ Rights Initiative failed to establish the legal standing necessary to obtain a court order blocking the election, primarily because the harm it claims is speculative.
But even if it had met that legal test, she said she would have denied the request for a preliminary injunction based on the merits of the case.
"The court finds that (Nevada's) interests in protecting the health and safety of Nevada's voters and to safeguard the voting franchise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic far outweigh any burden on plaintiff's right to vote," Du wrote in a 24-page opinion.
The plan announced in March by Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske still allows voters to cast their ballots in person if they choose during early voting that begins May 23 and on Election Day. But she’s requiring only one polling place be established in each of Nevada’s 17 counties.
James Bopp Jr., an Indiana-based lawyer representing the voting rights group, argued only Nevada’s legislature can change election rules. He said Cegavske’s plan was never formalized as regulation subject to public hearings.
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"She can’t just go out on her own and establish election procedures," Bopp told the judge during a telephonic hearing Wednesday.
"The Nevada Legislature has vested the secretary with authority to enact voting regulations," she wrote Thursday.
Democrats defend the mail-in approach generally. But they filed suit in state court earlier to block the plan based on concerns there won’t be enough polling places to accommodate in-person voters.
They also argue absentee ballots should be sent to all registered voters, not just those considered "active" because they participated in the last two elections. Inactive voters must specifically request absentee ballots.
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Du noted that Nevada's Democratic Party made the same arguments as a formal intervenor in the federal case that it argues in the state case, but that those issues are not part of the case in her court.