Cisco Aguilar says he's running to 'protect the future of Nevada'

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His opponent, Republican election denier Jim Marchant, says he would work to make Trump president again in 2024.

Running for office was not something Nevada Democratic nominee for secretary of state Cisco Aguilar had thought was in his future.

"I kind of think of myself as Forrest Gump — I never intended to be where I am, to be doing what I'm doing, to be running for secretary of state," Aguilar said. "I never thought I'd leave Tucson."

"Nobody ever left," he added.

For Aguilar, who grew up in a working class Latino family in Tucson with a father who worked three jobs, even going to college was not necessarily a given. But undergraduate studies and law school at the University of Arizona opened doors for Aguilar, who rose to become the youngest-ever chair of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, a role he left in 2017.

Now he's running for secretary of state in a high-stakes election against former state Rep. Jim Marchant, who baselessly claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Marchant, who says that his top priority as secretary of state "will be to overhaul the fraudulent election system in Nevada," peddles conspiracy theories in interviews and on the campaign trail about a "cabal" — alternatively "globalist" or "socialist communist" — that has rigged Nevada's elections for decades.

The Marchant campaign did not return a request for comment for this story.

In Nevada, as in most states, the secretary of state is the chief elections officer. The 2022 election features races for the position in several critical swing states that will determine who decides the legitimacy of the results of future elections.

"I always knew this race would be a battle, but when I found out Marchant was my opponent I knew that the stakes were suddenly much higher," Aguilar told the American Independent Foundation. "This isn't about Democratic versus Republican views, it's about protecting the freedom to vote, period."

Aguilar describes himself as a pro-business pragmatist inspired by the state's independent, libertarian heritage. As secretary of state, he says, he'd defend election workers and volunteers against unprecedented levels of harassment and intimidation; expand access to voting among the state's Native American communities; and cut regulatory red tape that he says stifles local small businesses.

Aguilar told the American Independent Foundation that his first act would be to reassure poll workers he'll support them, and that he would quickly move to draft legislation — the Nevada secretary of state can introduce six bills in the state Legislature per session — that would make harassment or intimidation of poll workers and volunteers a felony.

"Folks are scared to work in elections departments. They're scared to work the polls. They're scared to volunteer in the positions we need volunteers," he said. "That's unacceptable."

Election workers, particularly those working in swing states such as Nevada, Michigan, and Arizona, have seen a notable uptick in threats against them, according to the FBI. Many election workers in Nevada have quit or decided not to run for reelection because of harassment. By 2024, according to the Nevada Independent, more than a third of county-level officials who worked the 2020 election will no longer be in office.

Marchant, too, is open about what he believes his role as secretary of state would be.

"When I'm secretary of state of Nevada, we are going to fix it, and when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected we're going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024," he told a crowd of supporters at a Trump rally held earlier this month in Minden, Nevada.

To this end, Marchant wants to stop the state's use of electronic voting machines and return to hand-counted ballots, as well as banning mail-in and early voting. That would require all Nevadans to vote on Election Day. Aguilar calls that idea "not realistic."

"Nevada is a working state, we are a working community, we are a 24/7 economy. People work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and to ask them to go back to voting on a single day in November is unacceptable," Aguilar said. "When you tell somebody that someone wants to take your right away to early voting and make you vote on a single day, they really get it. And that's not a Republican or a Democrat issue — Republicans are starting to understand how dangerous he is."

Some Republicans, alarmed by Marchant, have endorsed Aguilar, including former Marchant primary opponent Kristopher Dahir.

But Aguilar isn't interested only in defending the system that already exists. While Native American turnout in 2020 was likely record-breaking, according to organizers and advocates, Aguilar thinks there's more the secretary of state's office can do. "We're on Native land. We're guests here. And we've shut them out of the process," he said.

Aguilar says creating a full-time position dedicated to Native American outreach is a necessary step; currently that work is done part time. Beyond that, Aguilar hopes to connect tribal governments with resources they can use to upgrade their out-of-date voting technology: "If we can figure out how to do a great job with our native community, those lessons, those principles, that engagement will lead to better engagement in our other marginalized communities."

But the secretary of state's office does more than just manage elections. In Nevada, the secretary serves as the state's chief recordkeeper, accountable for everything from campaign finance disclosures to corporate filings. Here, Aguilar says his own experience as the owner of a firm that helps student athletes license their images to local businesses helps guide his thinking about Nevada's economic climate.

"We need to be sure we're not burdening our businesses — reducing regulations, reducing compliance in a way that is reasonable and fair. Right now, our system from a functional standpoint is a bit outdated," he said. "We need to do a better job making sure that we are making life easier for folks. As a startup owner, those small regulations can weigh heavily on businesspeople."

However, the record-breaking amount of money flowing into the Nevada secretary of state race is very much related to the office's capacity to administer and set rules for elections. For Republicans who are convinced the last election was stolen, the secretary of state's office is ground zero to stop the next steal. For Democrats, the office is the last redoubt protecting America's fraying democracy.

The heightened stakes have helped the 2022 midterms' crop of secretary of state candidates break fundraising records. Last year, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and its affiliates raised $4.5 million, triple the groups' 2018 total. And last month DASS announced a $25 million advertising blitz for secretary of state candidates in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia.

According to the most recent campaign finance records, the last before Election Day, Aguilar has raised $1.8 million. Marchant, who missed this month's filing deadline and filed late, has raised almost $400,000.

But despite Marchant's conspiratorial worldview and relatively poor fundraising numbers, Aguilar is behind in the polls, something he attributed to the broader political environment.

"It's the value of the R next to his name. It has nothing to do with his capabilities, it has nothing to do with his qualifications," he said. "Democrats have a headwind, and he is riding the coattails of a tailwind."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.