Meet Nevada’s Newest Election Referee

A Conversation with Nevada Secretary of State, Cisco Aguilar.

The Secretary of State in Nevada is responsible for maintaining public records, like voter registration, business licenses and activities of the state legislature. But, the office is also tasked with overseeing the state’s elections, a position that has made these officials a target for political fighting and partisan influence.

In 2022, Nevada voters elected Democrat Cisco Aguilar to fill the seat held by Republican Barbara Cegavske who was termed out. Aguilar’s opponent was Jim Marchant, who supported the ending of mail-in ballots and promoted former president Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

Aguilar beat Marchant by two percentage points and fewer than 22,000 votes statewide in November. So, with such an important position decided in such a close contest, we wanted to catch up with Nevada’s newest election official to see what inspires him, what his job entails and how he’s hoping to bridge divides in a polarized political climate.

Steve Funk: Thanks for taking our questions today, Mr. Secretary. Who is the public figure you think has most influenced your worldview?

Cisco Aguilar: Well, there’s quite a few. If you’re talking about public figures, Andre Agassi. Born and raised in Nevada, he continually achieved what he achieved on the global stage, but always brought whatever success he had back to Nevada. And understanding that, as a Nevadan, you have a responsibility to make our community in our state better. He continues to do that every day.

On the political side, I had a great opportunity to work with Senator [Harry] Reid, and understand his commitment to Nevada, and what it means to serve those in Nevada who are hardest working (and sometimes not the luckiest), but just need help and support. Not a handout, but obviously giving them the benefit of the doubt to be able to achieve what they want to achieve. I come from a very similar family. My dad worked extremely hard to support our family and understood that obligation and commitment.

And of course, obviously, there’s JFK [President John F. Kennedy], who had a very strong sense of public service and understood what it meant to lead with transparency and trust.

When, and how, did you know that you’d end up devoting your life, or at least a portion of your life, to public service?

I think it was as a kid. My grandfather was a union leader for the mines in southern Arizona, and he died a tragic death doing what he loved, and that was fighting for the miners. Back in that time, there was a different perspective because OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] didn’t exist. In southern Arizona, a lot of the miners doing a lot of the most dangerous jobs were people coming across from Mexico. So, it was a Latino workforce who people thought were disposable.

My grandfather stood up and fought and said, “This is unacceptable. There need to be safer standards, there needs to be greater pay.” That dedication to fight was instilled in my mother, and which then led to me. I carry his name. I’m his namesake, and understand that you have a commitment to community, especially with community that’s been so good to you.

Did you get a chance to know him before he passed?

No, but I’ve heard amazing stories. In the mining town where he lived, he’s a legend, just because of the work he did.

What is the greatest misunderstanding that the public has about the duties of your new office?

I think understanding from the election side, the Secretary of State operates as a regulator. You are there to ensure that executors in the counties, and in the cities, are executing elections and are doing it within the law. The law stems from federal law and from law that’s passed by the [Nevada] legislature. You’re there to be a referee, to make sure that it is being implemented in a way that is for the benefit of all Nevadans.

In the recent cycle, you faced an opponent [Jim Marchant] who advocated for removing mail-in ballots and other restrictive voting measures promoted by the former president [Donald Trump]. What do you say to voters who may still believe that our system is ‘rigged’?

That’s not true. I think our system is designed to be as inclusive as possible to ensure that everybody across this great state has an opportunity to express their voice, has an opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote. That fundamental right to vote is so critical to every issue we value as Nevadans. Every issue we value runs through the ballot box and the more people we can get to the ballot box, the greater participation we have from our street, the better vision we’re going to be able to create for the future – because people are expressing their opinion by voting.

There was a lot of anxiety before the last cycle about the spate of threats to poll workers across the nation. Nevada elections staff and volunteers I spoke with expressed some concerns. How will you address those?

It goes back to people. People make our elections work. We can have all the technology in the world, we can have all the resources in the world. But, if we don’t have people there to work the polls, to support the people working the polls, and to do the very simple task of running documents from the Central Election office out to the polling sites, if we don’t have those individuals, our elections don’t work.

We need to recognize the importance of people and that’s why our biggest, and probably most important piece of legislation, is making it a felony to intimidate or harass election workers and volunteers. We need to let those people, that are there every day working in elections, know that we have their back and we’re going to protect them. They shouldn’t have to go to work, or go volunteer, in fear.

Editor’s Note: The legislation noted above, codified in NRS 293.710, makes it illegal for any person to use or threaten force, violence, intimidation and coercion against voters and election workers. The law has been revised over time, most recently in 2017. Those who are found guilty of violating this law face a category E felony, which carries a minimum of one year in state prison and a maximum of four years.

Did your predecessor, Barbara Cevgaske, do a good enough job in that regard?

She did a phenomenal job. I’m grateful for what she’s been able to do, what she stood for, how she dedicated every moment of her time in this office to making sure that people understood the elections were fair. They were well run, and she did what she needed to do to put all Nevadans first, before party.

What was it about the way she ran this office that put her in a position to be more bipartisan than what we’re seeing happening in some other states with Republicans in the State office?

Well, it goes back to the role of this office as a regulator of elections. She first said, ‘What is the law? What is the purpose of the law? And, what is the point of the law?’ She didn’t make a decision by saying, ‘What is in the best interest of my party?’ She said, ‘What is in the best interest of maintaining the trust and respect of the office and the elections were having?’

I think she did a good job of that in Nevada, but still, the trust factor is something that needs work, doesn’t it? That’s in being present, making sure you’re engaging in conversations. It takes a lot of listening, and it’s putting yourself out there. I think you have to go into uncomfortable situations. Ask the question, ‘Why do you hold that belief? Or why do you think that occurred?’ Then, step back and listen. And as you are listening, you’re building trust. And once you have an idea of why a person feels the way they do, you can then direct the conversation to say, ‘I hear what you’re saying. This is what I believe you’ve said, but here is another perspective.’ But, you can only share that alternative perspective once there’s a sense of trust between you and the individual.

Sometimes, somebody brings up a great point and you have to say, ‘You know what? You’re right. We have to fix it.’ And then the trust is built by them seeing you take action, and making sure that the situation doesn’t occur again.

Do you plan to lobby the Legislature to put more paid workers into the polling places?

I think it’s, one, making sure that they feel safe and that the environment they are in is conducive to doing what they need to do. I think our focus is saying, ‘How do we build the systems and processes to allow those systems to work better on the ground?’ We are making a significant budget request for a voter registration and election management system, VREMS [Voter Registration & Elections Management Solution], which would help us do the top-down voter registration and help eliminate a lot of these issues that individuals in Nevada’s have about our ballots and mail ballot system.

Obviously, it’s an election management system, which would help us bring transparency to the voter. A voter could log into the system, no matter where they lived in the state, and they could see where their ballot went, when it was received and all the details they would want to have. Especially in a day and age when you can track your mail and have a visual of where that mail piece is, or when somebody can log on and see where their stock portfolio is at any point in time, that real-time information is critical to building that trust factor, but we need the technology to be able to do it.

Editor’s Note: VREMS is the result of legislation passed during the 2021 Legislative Session [AB 422]. The law required the Secretary of State Office to create a centralized database to collect and store voter information, and all counties to use the system. VREMS is scheduled to be implemented over the year.

You’ve said you want to streamline the processes of the agency and focus on ensuring that vulnerable communities have full access. What makes a community of voters vulnerable?

When somebody’s trying to prevent them from having access to the polls. I think sometimes people believe that certain communities shouldn’t have access to the polls because they have a different perspective of life. That’s not fair. We need to make sure that we are gathering and including as many different viewpoints as possible, finding that consensus and then governing from that consensus.

Top-down voter registration allows that, and we are streamlining that process across all 17 counties.

What does it mean to have top-down voter registration?

Top-down voter registration puts the onus and responsibility on the Secretary of State’s office to manage voter registration systems, and so it streamlines that process and makes it the same across all 17 counties. Right now, we have bottom-up, which means all 17 counties have their own processes for voter registration and that information is sent up to the Secretary of State’s office. You have 17 different processes [and] 17 different systems that you’re trying to compile and build a voter roll. If we do it the other way, where we do it from the top down, there’s one process, one system, to establish that voter roll, that database, and make sure it’s accurate.

There are simple things. When you change your address with the U.S. Postal Service, you’re verifying that you are that person when you change that address. We recently met with the U.S. Postal Service to say that’s secure enough to be able to update our voter rolls so that we’re not sending ballots to the wrong address. So that the individuals, the right individuals, are actually getting that ballot through a simple address change with the U.S. Postal Service.

Does your office have a role to play in the investigations into the issues in Nevada that we saw about false electors, voting machines and the hand counts during the 2022 cycle?

Absolutely. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re investigating bad actors. Anytime there is a bad actor that manipulates the system, it brings down that trust. [False electors] is a little bit more complicated, because that is a federal issue and we don’t have jurisdiction over that issue. But, I know there are conversations about how to address that.

Editor’s Note: In response to members of the Nevada Republican Party claiming widespread voter fraud in 2020, then-Secretary of State, Barbara Cegavske wrote in a letter: “Our investigation revealed that these allegations and others are based largely upon an incomplete assessment of voter registration records and lack of information concerning the processes by which these records are compiled and maintained. And while the NVGOP raises policy concerns about the integrity of mail-in voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration, these concerns do not amount to evidentiary support for the contention that the 2020 general election was plagued by widespread voter fraud.

You’ve said before that your tech background informs a lot of your ideas. We talked a little bit about how tech can make the voting experience better. Are there any limits to those kinds of applications?

It’s security, right? We have to make sure that when we’re building these systems or implementing them that they are secure, that they continue to be the systems we want them to be and that take us in a direction of intended consequences – while making sure we understand unintended consequences at the same time.

Governor [Joe] Lombardo has stated that he intends to implement a host of changes that feed into that narrative of the lack of competence in our voting security. Your positions are not necessarily aligned with his. Do you foresee that generating conflict and how do you manage that?

I think you try, in every moment, to avoid conflict. What we try to do is create dialogue, again to go back to the basic understanding of why he has the perspective he has. We try to educate in that moment to say, ‘These are our processes. These are our systems. This is why this occurs,’ and we have that conversation figuring out where do we align and press forward on those issues.

Do you have any red lines that you don’t think the governor should cross when it comes to election security?

Anyone trying to prevent someone from having access [to polls] are non-starters for me. That’s the line in the sand, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to listen and try to find a compromise to some issues. The access part, the mail ballots, are here to stay from my perspective. We also have a great legislature [to] figure out and debate these issues, and whatever they intend is the outcome of that law. Whatever the governor signs, is what I have to do. It’s my job to implement the law once it’s passed. Then, we have our checks and balances, right?

What is the best question nobody’s ever asked you yet about this job?

People that work in this office are really dedicated to the mission. Sometimes, you walk into a new organization and you have new ideas and new perspective, and you say, ‘I want to do this. I want to do that.’ And they say, ‘That’s not how we do things here.’ Well, that has not happened once so far. You listen to understand what they want to accomplish and figure out how it fits within your strategy. Everybody here is here for a reason and purpose. They love the state. They love the work they do. And they want to see us do better.

I know that you’re new in the job and so there’s going to be a learning curve for you. I could come back and ask these very same questions another time and see if they may have different answers?

Well, I think even in July, once we finish up the legislative session, I’m going to have a whole new perspective, because there’s going to be a lot of dialogue that’s going to occur over the next four months. We’re going to learn a lot of new perspectives and we’re going to be able to drive forward.

Democrat Cisco Aguilar was elected Nevada’s Secretary of State in 2022, replacing Barbara Cegavske, who could not run for reelection due to term limits. Aguilar defeated Republican Jim Marchant by two percentage points.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for clarity and length.

Steve Funk is an experienced print and broadcast journalist, development manager, award-winning community builder, and communicator who has lived in Reno/Tahoe for more than 50 years. As a podcast and radio show host, Steve’s passion for the Silver State and its communities, economy, and politics drove his career and the content of his Grow Nevada Team‘casts on NBC Radio and writings in the Northern Nevada Business Weekly and Boomer magazines. His leadership has charted development for both non-profit and commercial enterprises in Northern Nevada. In 2012 AAF Reno awarded Steve Community Builder of the Year. When Steve has time, he devotes much of it to his love of making music with his wife and friends, volunteering, and exploring the outdoors with family.

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