Voting rights alone will not save us 

June 8, 2021 6:00 am

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Much has been said and written about voting rights this last year and for good reasons. Vote Nevada, a nonprofit founded by Nevadans for Nevadans, will be contributing to this dialogue over the summer with events focused on our full suite of democracy rights, such as the right to fair representation and the right to engage in direct democracy. Because voting rights do not exist in a vacuum, protecting voting rights alone is insufficient to save our democracy; we must also ensure voters have the right to vote for fair representation through a diverse range of candidates, and to engage in governing activities without frivolous litigation. 

Outside of this package of democracy-affirming constitutional protections, voting rights are easily subjected to manipulation by the political parties, which can mute voters’ voices through gerrymandering, and by limiting who may fully participate in primary and general elections and who may engage in legislative processes. 

These discussions and actions to protect democracy rights are constitutionally established in the First Amendment, obviously, but also in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Rights in Nevada’s constitution, which both clearly recognize a role for “we the people” in governance. Of the two founding documents, Nevada’s Declaration is the clearest in establishing where political power originates: “All political power is inherent in the people[.] Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it.” Article 1, Sec. 2

Vote Nevada, therefore, strongly argues that to fully protect voting rights, we first must recognize and respect the individual constitutional right to directly reform government. The clearest historical example of this reform impulse occurred approximately 100 years ago when reformers added the initiative, referendum and recall to many state constitutions, including Nevada’s, and when Americans added the 16th, 17th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These reforms derived from the fight to curb Gilded Age corruption and included the assertion that “the people” could effectively reform government if given an enhanced right to vote.

So, while our legislature did protect voting rights, there was no hearing on SJR9, a proposal from state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) to amend the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission, and no discussion of redistricting processes, and there was no hearing on SB121 to discuss reforming our primary elections. The public was therefore denied its right to even question the bills’ sponsor let alone engage in a debate on the merits of the bills. Stopping a discussion of fair representation, legal redistricting, and electing candidates to office, fails to respect the people’s political rights and so fails to fully protect voting rights.  

Fair representation starts with fair redistricting processes. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that a census count must happen every 10 years of all persons in the country and from this data Americans are then entitled to representation in government. The census process appears very near the beginning of the Constitution, and is reinforced in the 14th amendment, because, for the country’s founders and for the architects of Reconstruction, it was vital to establish that Americans would, indeed, have fair representation. Plainly stated, taxation with representation and equal protection under the law both require fair representation. Redistricting should affirm these rights. 

Nevada’s redistricting maps belong to the people for us to uphold those rights. Consequently, we need transparent and accessible redistricting processes that ensure the people have a seat at the table and that follow all federal laws and Supreme Court rulings.

Our legislative majority approved an additional interim committee to review and make recommendations for the upcoming redistricting processes, so Nevadans must make our voices heard on fair representation through this committee. Vote Nevada will run training sessions this summer to teach anyone interested how to use the redistricting software, which will allow us to check the redistricting maps before the governor signs. 

A right to fair representation also gives voters the right to elect someone who reflects their community’s interests. During the legislative session, the new voting laws and associated rhetoric stressed that every eligible voter should be able to vote, yet nothing was said about the fact that we still elect candidates to office in closed primaries. This practice does not align with fair representation, and it does not empower voters. In fact, it does the exact opposite. Publicly financed elections that select nominees and elect candidates to office that exclude nonpartisan voters silences their voices. 

The constitutional right to vote is not qualified by a partisan restriction. So, shutting out nonpartisan voters from having a say in who is elected due to party affiliation is literally voter suppression. 

Furthermore, our state constitution establishes a right to run ballot questions and a right to vote on ballot questions. Yet, elected officials often say that we should not legislate from the ballot box; that is not what Nevadans stipulated when they amended our state constitution to establish the right to direct democracy through the ballot box. Nevadans over 100 years ago amended direct democracy rights into our state constitution and intended those rights to exist on par with all other constitutional rights. 

Because voting rights do not exist in a vacuum, Vote Nevada is hosting a series of Zoom events this summer to review the rights and powers Nevadans have to ensure fair representation and to engage directly in governing processes. We do have constitutional options for engaging in our redistricting processes and for achieving outcomes that were not advanced during the legislative session and we plan to help Nevadans understand those options.

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Sondra Cosgrove
Sondra Cosgrove

Sondra Cosgrove is the executive director of Vote Nevada and a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.