Photo By DENNIS MYERS At the downtown Reno municipal bus terminal, voter registrars have been signing up voters.

On the day before Nevada’s primary election this year, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, and the law firm of Dechert LLP, sued Nevada to get a remedy to what the civil rights groups called the state’s “ongoing disregard” for the voting rights of low-income residents.

The suit argued that the state was not in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Best known for imposing “motor voter”—a requirement for voter registration at state motor vehicle licensing offices—the Act did not stop there.

The lawsuit filing argued, “Section 7 of the [Act] requires that all public assistance offices … distribute a voter registration application with each application for public assistance, and each recertification, renewal, or change of address relating to an individual’s receipt of public assistance. Section 7 of the [Act] reflects Congress’ objective to ensure that registration is accessible for the poor and persons with disabilities who do not have driver’s licenses.”

At one time, the state was very active in providing voter registration in public assistance offices. Tens of thousands of registrations were taken there. But in recent years those numbers have fallen into four digits.

In response to the lawsuit, voter registration efforts have become much more aggressive in various offices that serve low-income Nevadans.

In addition, online voter registration has become available this month.

However, the notion that ease of registration increases voter turnout is not a proposition that has panned out in the past.

Party gain?

Some commentaries have suggested that the push in the state for more low-income participation in voting is likely to be an advantage for the Democratic Party, but that is far from certain. Low-income whites, in particular, are a big question mark.

“This is a nation of aspirations, and many people vote their aspirations,” said political scientist Fred Lokken. “Voters often want to identify with the party that speaks to affluence.”

He said party is only one of many factors that drive votes by the poor, and there has never been a worse time to bet on party loyalty.

“It can be driven by religious affiliation, family history, the critical issues of the day or the state of the economy,” Lokken said.

The kinds of likely behavior the party system once counted on are no longer givens.

“One of the realities the two parties have had to face is that their guaranteed locked-in support has kind of disappeared,” Lokken said. “Party loyalty has never been lower.”

The economy is a very powerful driver of voter preference in hard times, he said.

“They’re going to take into account how well they’ve done.”

Even if people are registered, nothing assures that they will vote. In the state’s primary election in June, turnout was in the teens—and that was as a percent of registered voters. As a percent of eligible voters, it was even lower.

In part, the low turnout was likely attributable to the early date—June 12. But even taking that into account, a 14.5 percent turnout is pretty dismal.

Overall turnout generally is of less importance, certainly in the presidential race, than who turns out.

In Nevada, Mitt Romney leads among white voters, men, voters over 45, and those who describe themselves as independents. In addition, the number of Nevadans who view him negatively has declined, giving him about the same favorability rankings as Barack Obama— though Romney may be on a trend line, which means his favorability could continue improving.

Obama leads among minorities, women, and voters under 45.

Obama’s Nevada lead fell to three points in a Public Policy Polling survey taken the weekend before the Republican National Convention, the most recent independent survey available. That margin is so close that Republican tactics like suing to remove Nevada’s “none of these candidates” ballot option could have a determinative impact if that margin holds.

Latinos resist

Perhaps surprisingly, PPP found that Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson polled in other states better than in Nevada, where he receives just 2 percent of the vote. However, it is difficult to assess who Johnson takes votes from, because his issue stands tend to cut across liberal/conservative lines. He opposes the war on drugs, supports abortion rights, opposes the kind of military interventions the U.S. has launched in recent decades, opposes use of detention and torture, and supports marriage equality. He also opposes the Democratic health care plan, supports gun rights, and opposes the level of taxation that currently exists.

Voters registering with the Democratic Party have grown steadily during this campaign year compared to Republicans, but that is likely due to more effective efforts by the Democratic Party as much as to voter preferences. Voter registrations are not usually a good indicator of election outcomes. And Obama is not the rock star he was in 2008, when he drew huge numbers of voters to the polls.

As of the end of July, 451,066 of the state’s voters were Democrats, 402,471 were Republicans and 180,366 were nonpartisan. One Democratic think tank said Nevada is experiencing nonpartisan gains in double-digit percentages, one of two states where independent numbers are growing that fast.

In any event, Republican voter registration efforts could now gain with the arrival of $166,000 from the Republican National Committee for the Nevada GOP registration campaign.

Probably the biggest disappointment for Republican leaders is the Latino vote. Obama currently enjoys a 39-percentage point lead among those Nevada voters. Republican organization leaders have put in serious effort in recent years to lure those voters to the GOP, but Republican elected officials unable to resist beating the drum for harsher immigration policies have stymied those efforts. Latinos account for a fifth to a quarter of the Nevada electorate.

Significant campaign benchmarks still to come that could provide game-changing moments are the three presidential and one vice presidential debates. Obama and Romney debate on Oct. 3, 16, and 22, and the vice presidential candidates debate on Oct. 11. So far, no other candidates have been admitted to the debates.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...