New group targets Nevada with election reform initiative

New group targets Nevada with election reform initiative
A polling site in Fallon, Nevada on Nov. 3, 2020. Image: Ty O'Neil / This Is Reno

by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
November 29, 2021

CARSON CITY–Nevadans next year will have the opportunity to vote on open primaries and ranked-choice voting, if a newly formed statewide coalition has its way.

A proposed initiative petition was filed with the Secretary of State’s office on Nov. 12 by a newly formed political action committee called Nevada Voters First. The proposal would reform how congressional, statewide and state legislative races are decided.

The backers and early adopters of the proposal believe it’s a much-needed reform that addresses the state’s growing number of nonpartisan voters, as well as counter hyperpartisanship and the outsized influence of money and political parties.

Todd Bice, a prominent attorney who represents some of the biggest gaming companies in the state, is the only name listed on the PAC forms submitted to the state. Bice did not return the Current’s request for comment.

But Sondra Cosgrove of Vote Nevada, which has advocated for election reforms such as open primaries, confirmed her organization has already signed onto the Nevada Voters First coalition and that organizers hope it will be a bipartisan effort.

She also confirmed the effort is backed by the Institute for Political Innovation, a national nonpartisan nonprofit founded in 2020 by former food and beverage company CEO Katherine Gehl.

“They’ve got money,” said Cosgrove. “That’s the bottom line.”

Money matters because both the signature-gathering process and defending against legal challenges can be costly. For example, the PAC created for Clark County Education Association’s ballot proposal to raise Nevada’s gaming tax shelled out $1 million to a local political firm to qualify for the 2022 general election ballot. That PAC also received more than $60,000 in in-kind legal services, according to mandatory reports filed with the state.

“We know (legal challenges) are a tactic to drain bank accounts and time,” said Cosgrove, whose own attempt last year to create an independent redistricting commission through an initiative petition was challenged in court and by the pandemic.

After a proposed initiative is filed with the state, there begins a 15-day window where legal challenges can be filed over its “description of the effect” — the blurb that appears on the top of the ballot question explaining what it would do. That 15-day window excludes weekends and holidays, meaning for Nevada Voters First it will close at the end of this week.

To qualify for the ballot, Nevada Voters First will have to gather signatures that equal at least 10% of the total number of voters who cast ballots during the last general election — roughly 142,500 registered voters, evenly divided between the state’s four congressional districts.

It is a proposed constitutional amendment, meaning it would have to be approved by voters in 2022 and 2024 before going into effect. 

How voting could work

Under the proposed voting system, Nevada primaries would be open, rather than split into Democratic and Republican. All registered voters could cast a ballot, including the more than 30% of the Nevada electorate now registered as a nonpartisan or third-party voters. The top five finishers move onto the general election.

On that November general election ballot, voters would rank the five candidates — number one pick, second pick, etc. If one candidate receives more than 50% of first-choice votes, they are declared the winner. If not, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to their second-choice candidate. That process is continued until a candidate receives a true majority.

The Institute for Political Innovation calls it “Final Five Voting.”

The election system was adopted by Alaska voters through a ballot measure in 2020, though in their version only the top four primary finishers will advance to the general election.

That Alaska ballot measure passed with 50.5% support.

Maine has also adopted a ranked-choice voting system statewide.

Notably, Maine and Alaska are known for their U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, two Republicans who have made national headlines for crossing party lines and voting with Democrats.

Dozens of municipalities have also adopted ranked-choice voting, including New York City, which used the model in its recent high-profile mayoral race.

Similarly, 15 states now have open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More have partially open primaries. The version used across California is known as a “jungle primary” — all candidates appear on the primary ballot and the top two finishers advance to the general, regardless of political party.

The jungle primary concept was floated by former Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer during the last regular legislative session, but there was little appetite for it in Carson City.

Political reform typically needs the boost of outside good governance groups, says UNLV political science professor David Damore. The Nevada ballot measure in the 1990s establishing term limits was one example of that happening, he says. Political parties have little incentive to change the status quo.

“They like the closed primary,” said Damore. “They want to know who is going to show up to vote and how they’re going to vote. It makes their life easier.”

But voters may embrace the concept.

Election reforms are seen as a way to balance increasing political polarization. Damore notes that state legislatures across the country, including here in Nevada, are increasingly seeing their votes fall in two categories: either unanimous or split along party lines.

Damore says part of the appeal of ranked-choice voting and open primaries for everyday voters is the belief it will result in more moderate candidates who aren’t forced to cater to primaries determined by the most extreme or vocal factions of their political party.

“If the rules result in outcomes nobody is happy with, then change the rules,” he says. “That’s a basic institutional argument.”

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