What went wrong with the higher ed oversight ballot measure

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The College of Southern Nevada's North Las Vegas campus on Aug. 24, the first day of the 2020-21 academic year. (Photo: College of Southern Nevada)

A statewide ballot initiative to remove the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution may have narrowly failed this year, but its supporters say they plan to regroup and make their case to voters again.

Question 1 sought to remove all references to the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution. Proponents argued — and still do argue — that the existing constitutional carve out gives the 13-person elected board carte blanche to act as a “fourth branch of government” immune to accountability and oversight from the state Legislature.

The question failed by 3,877 votes, or just three-tenths of a percent of votes cast. According to the Secretary of State’s election results website: 630,023 people voted no and 626,146 voted yes.

Andrew Woods, manager for the ‘Yes on 1’ campaign, says their analysis of election results data shows that voters who cast their ballots on or shortly before Election Day were far more favorable toward the question than early voters. He chalks that up to later voters hearing ‘Yes on 1’ messaging and earlier voters being left to decipher the question on their own.

“Voters were confused about the question when they read it and they defaulted to no,” he said. “But the voters who were educated, that we communicated with, particularly later in the election, voted yes.”

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that describes itself as “the encyclopedia of American politics,” scores the readability of state ballot measures using two established readability formulas. One of those formulas assigned Question 1’s readability at Grade Level 39. The average for 129 state ballot measures across the U.S. in 2020 was Grade Level 17. The other formula also gave Question 1 a readability score equivalent to beyond college graduate level.

Yes on 1 released a television ad in October after mail ballots had already been delivered — and some of them potentially filled out and sent back.

Added Woods, “We should have communicated sooner.”

Elliot Anderson, a former state legislator who authored the joint resolution that led to the ballot question, doesn’t fault the campaign.

“I thought we ran a good campaign,” he said. “Just like everybody else, covid had a major impact on what we could (fund)raise. We did raise a healthy amount but it wasn’t anything more than average for a statewide race.”

Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, a pro-Question 1 political action committee, raised $596,000 during the election cycle, according to required filings.

Anderson believes the campaign needed more resources to help voters overcome “the major education barrier” that exists when voters try to understand — and trust — a densely worded measure involving “constitutional history, 156 years, framers and overlapping statutory framework.”

“You need a more than average statewide campaign to get that message across and give that justice.”

While 3,877 votes made the difference for Question 1, tens of thousands of voters opted not to weigh in.

Upwards of 92,000 voters skipped at least one of the five ballot questions. Many of those skipped all five, but more voters skipped Question 1 than any other. Question 1 had 59,067 fewer votes total than Question 2, which received the most total votes and successfully enshrined in the Nevada Constitution protections for marriages regardless of gender. Question 1 had 22,133 fewer total votes than the second least answered question, Question 3, which made changes to the state’s board of pardon commissioners.

Question 1 was the only measure out of five to fail this year.

Woods, Anderson and others who supported passage say they will continue to push to remove the regents from the constitution.

Maureen Schafer, the executive director for Council for a Better Nevada, which helped fund the PAC and pushed the measure, said the debate over Question 1 reminds her of advice routinely given in her day job.

“We talk about this as a mantra in the business community: Governance matters. You can play around the edges, you can get a new superintendent, a new CEO, you can go get every whiz bang new thing, but if you don’t have appropriate governance, it’s not going to move the ball forward.”

Anderson echoed that sentiment.

“I hate to be Debbie Downer but I lived this for years,” he says, “and until the Board of Regents feels as though the Legislature can reach out and touch them, you won’t see self policing on the board.”

Schafer added that she believes the effort could be successful down the road, preferably in a year without a pandemic and a “competitive, never-ending election season.”

“We do it again,” she said. “What exactly that looks like, I can’t answer. But I think we’re energized.”

Passing a constitutional amendment after originally failing isn’t uncommon. One more recent example from Nevada is the establishment of the state court of appeals, which voters shot down by more than 6 percentage points in 2010 then approved in 2014 by more than 7 percentage points.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.