Washoe County Registrar Administers First All Mail-In Election for Primary Races

by Scott King

Photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Washoe County Registrar of Voters is conducting its first all-mail voting primary election. Over 291,000 ballots have already been mailed to registered voters in Washoe County with guidelines on how to return completed ballots. 

“We were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and had to make a decision on how we felt we can best run the election and protect the health and safety of our poll workers, our citizens and our staff,” Deanna Spikula, Washoe County Registrar of Voters, said during an online press conference earlier today. “All 17 counties [in Nevada], along with the Office of the Secretary of State, collaborated on coming up with a plan to administer this election as an all mail-in election.”

To date, over 40,000 completed ballots have been returned, a 14 percent completion rate. According to Spikula, Washoe County is receiving between 2,000 to 3,000 ballots a day. The Registrar expects those numbers will increase as the June 9 Election Day approaches. 

However, in order to better educate the public on the mail-in voting process, the Registrar has posted videos on their website for voters to learn more.

“We accept ballots in the mail through the postal service, or [voters] would have to drop their ballots off in-person,” Spikula said. “[Voters] can also allocate a family member to bring that ballot in to us, but it’s only a family member that can return that ballot, or the voter themselves.”

As long as ballots are postmarked by Election Day, they will be accepted and counted up through seven days after the election. Once the mail-in ballots are received, the signature verification process will be started.

“Once we have confirmed that the voter is eligible and the ballot is valid, we will lock it in a secure vault until we begin processing and preparing those ballots to be run through our electronic scanners,” Spikula said. “Any ballots that are physically damaged, or that come from our military and overseas voters, will have to be duplicated onto a ballot that can be run into our system.”

Ballots that have been marked incorrectly or require additional attention will be adjudicated by a bipartisan team hired to perform that duty. 

The early voting process for the primary elections started on May 23 and will end on June 5. Currently, there is only one location, the Washoe County complex on East 9th St., for voters to appear in-person.

In order to accommodate a new law change for same-day registration policy, voters need to bring a Nevada ID or Nevada driver’s license in order to register and vote in-person. Voters who go through the same-day voter registration process will cast what’s called a provisional ballot. That ballot will be set aside and will not be counted until after Election Day, after the voter’s residency and identity are verified and it’s confirmed that the voter did not already cast a ballot in the election or in another county. 

Sanitary precautions and social distancing measures are also being put in place to protect voters and poll workers alike from the coronavirus.

“We do have social distancing cones right outside the building, so that people know where they need to line up and stand before they are called in by one of the poll workers,” Heather Carmen, Assistant Registrar of Washoe County, said. “They’ll be shown to an intake station that has been sanitized and also has a plexiglass shield to protect both the voter and our poll worker. Then they are shown to an ICX prime voting cabinet where they can cast their ballot. Once they exit our building they drop off their voter access card, so [the voter access card] and the ICX prime can be sanitized for the next voter that wants to come in and cast their ballot.”

The same in-person voting process will continue up through Election Day. Just over 200 voters in Washoe County have cast their primary election ballots in-person already.

Due to the all mail-in voting process, additional changes are being made on how election results are reported as well. Election results will still be reported on the night of Election Day, as is the precedent, however those results will be considered incomplete until the mail-in process is finished seven days later.

“There will still be ballots coming in the mail after election day and that’s because of a recent law change that now allows mail-in ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, which is June 9th,” Wayne Thorley, Deputy Secretary of State, said during an online press conference. “As long as we receive the ballot no more than seven days after that, the ballot will be counted.”

Consequently, if there are close races, the winner will not be known until after Election Day. In some races, this means that the candidate that is ahead on election night may not be the candidate that ultimately wins the election.

“The counties have up to ten days after the election to [process and confirm election results],” Thorley said. “We will continue to update election results daily through the seven days that we’ll be getting ballots in the mail after the election. Then we will be counting the provisional ballots that were cast by same-day voters.”

For voters that want to follow the election results in real-time, a results dashboard and a WaitTime app will be available on the Registrar of Voters webpage. The app has already been launched and provides voters with the location and estimated wait-times for in-person voting.

“The user can click on the poll location and get information about when the polls open, what the address of it is and directions to the poll location right to their mobile device,” Jay Johnson of Washoe County Technology Services said. 

The wait time will change via a dynamic process, which means it will be updated in real-time and won’t require users to refresh the webpage.

The election results dashboard will be launched on the Registrar’s webpage the night of Election Day, after the polls have been closed and results begin to be tabulated. The interface will display a bar chart showing real-time election results as they come in post-verification.

“We have three buttons where the user can choose to look at federal races, state races or local races,” Johnson said. 

Users will also have the option to view only the Democratic results or only the Republican results for the same race. An overall tab will be provided to list the Democratic, Republican, nonpartisan and total election turnout results, too. 

For those interested in the specific tallies and percentages related to the race, hovering the cursor over a bar in the chart will provide that information to them. 

“We expect to start releasing results when the Secretary of State’s Office has confirmed that all polls across the state have closed,” Spikula said. “At that point results should include most of the ballots that we have received up through Election Day, and then the early voting and Election Day numbers from our polling location.”

Spikula expects the results to come in faster than normal, since ballots from over 80 traditional polling locations won’t have to be driven in from counties around the state. 

For voters concerned about potential fraud being committed in the mail-in process, Spikula points to the fact that the mail-in and absentee ballot verification process is nothing new.

“We have been doing this for quite a while,” Spikula said. “There are unique identifiers on the ballots and we check them and immediately get them processed through our signature verification process.

“Then they are locked in a secure location where there’s only access by either my staff, or some areas that require two staff members to be present in order to unlock those doors. Those are a lot of the security precautions that we take.”

Carmen encourages voters concerned about the status of their mailed-in ballot to contact the Registrar directly.

“If a voter is concerned as to whether or not we have received their ballot back, they can verify this by going on to our website,” Carmen said. “On our main page, they can put in their last name, their date of birth and it’ll pull up their information and it will show when their ballot was mailed out and the date that we received it. So if there’s any questions in regards to whether or not we have it in our office, they can certainly check on that themselves.”

In relation to recent legal challenges that have been filed related to the all mail-in election, the Registrar is moving forward after a federal judge dismissed True the Vote’s preliminary injunction filed a few weeks ago.

True the Vote has filed a new and amended motion for preliminary injunction, but no timeline has been given on when a ruling on that will be determined by a judge.

Another legal challenge from the State Democratic Party has been withdrawn in light of concessions made by Clark County.


Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.