Election reform initiative creeps toward ballot qualification, opponents become vocal

By: - May 10, 2022 6:12 am

A screenshot from a public service announcement by the New York City Civic Engagement Commission explaining how ranked-choice voting works.

The election reform group attempting to bring open primaries and ranked-choice voting to Nevada says it will be ready to submit the signatures required to qualify their proposal for this year’s general election ballot at least 10 days before the June 29 deadline.

And their opponents are beginning to publicize their disapproval.

On Monday, the Let Nevadans Vote coalition held a press conference to express concerns they have about the impact of the proposed ballot measure, which is also being challenged in the courts by prominent lawyers associated with the Democratic Party.

Under the proposed voting system, Nevada’s congressional, state executive (like the governor and attorney general) and state legislative 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 electorate now registered as nonpartisan or third-party voters. The top five finishers would 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 their votes redistributed to the candidates who were marked as second-choice candidates on those ballots. That process is continued until one candidate receives a true majority.

The Institute for Political Innovation, the deep-pocketed national group behind the effort, calls it “Final Five Voting.” In Nevada, the effort has been dubbed the “Better Voting Nevada Initiative.”

But an alliance called Let Nevadans Vote, which includes more than two dozen individual organizations, says it doesn’t believe the proposal is actually offering a better voting system.

“We (as a coalition) aren’t afraid of making changes to our electoral system,” said Emily Persaud-Zamora of Silver State Voices, noting the coalition’s advocacy for same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration and universal mail ballots. “But this is not a policy that aligns with our pro-voter stance.”

Persaud-Zamora said ranked-choice voting makes casting a ballot “more time consuming, more complicated and more confusing for voters” and argued it would lead to increased errors and ballots being rejected. She added that the coalition believes the impact would be disproportionately felt by new voters, low-propensity voters, and those who already feel disenfranchised by the U.S. election system.

Let Nevadans Vote is encouraging anyone who has already signed the initiative petition to withdraw their support, which can be done by filling out a form and sending it to their county clerk.

Sondra Cosgrove says Nevada Voters First plans on submitting more than enough signatures to counteract any flip-floppers. Cosgrove is executive director of Vote Nevada, which has signed onto the Nevada Voters First coalition.

According to campaign forms filed with the state, Nevada Voters First is working with Advanced Micro Targeting, a ballot qualification company headed by former Nevada state SenateMajority Leader Michael Roberson that in 2020 submitted almost double the number of signatures needed to qualify a pair of tax hike measures being pushed by the Clark County Education Association. Nevada Voters First has paid $750,000 to Advanced Micro Targeting by the end of the first quarter reporting.

Advanced Micro Targeting in 2020 was contracted to qualify a similar open-primary/ranked-choice voting initiative in Alaska, where the measure narrowly passed with 50.55% support. The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled the new voting system is valid and it will be used beginning with this year’s elections.

Persaud-Zamora notes that the population of Alaska and Maine, the only other state that has adopted ranked choice voting statewide, are more homogeneous than Nevada.

“I don’t think imitating what’s worked in those two states that have whiter populations is actually what we’re looking for,” she said. “There really hasn’t been much research that has been done about the impact this has on communities of color.”

Cosgrove flatly rejects the narrative that open primaries and ranked choice voting are confusing to people of color.

“Voters can rate five things,” she said. “It’s not any more confusing than the election changes we have made, and we have made a lot.”

The proposed ballot measure is a constitutional amendment, meaning it would have to be approved by voters in two subsequent general elections — once in 2022 and again in 2024. It would go into effect in 2026.

Cosgrove believes that is plenty of time to educate voters on the changes.

Cosgrove says opponents to the election reform initiative are attempting to protect their own political power. Closed primaries have easier-to-predict turnout and every general election being a binary decision between one Democrat and one Republican makes it easier to get the candidate they want elected, she says.

She points out the Nevada Democratic Party used a form of ranked-choice voting during their 2020 presidential caucus, which the party touted as innovative and inclusive at the time.

“It was good enough for them then,” adds Cosgrove, “but not now?”

Persaud-Zamora counters that the Let Nevadans Vote is a nonpartisan coalition and took no position on the format used by the Democratic Party in 2020.

She added, “What we have seen, what many of our groups saw after that particular process in talking to their communities was that it was a confusing process for folks who participated.”

In 2021, the Nevada State Legislature officially changed the state from a party-run caucus system to a state-run presidential primary. Along with it comes the intent to make the Silver State first in the nation to pick a presidential nominee. (Presidential primaries, it should be noted, would not be affected by the proposed voting system.)

Prominent Let Nevadans Vote coalition members such as Battle Born Progress typically describe themselves as nonpartisan — and they have butted heads with Democratic leaders on issues such as redistricting — but they are widely viewed as aligned with the Democratic Party.

The Nevada State AFL-CIO in late April took a firm stance against the election reform proposal, announcing among its candidate endorsements that it recommends its members decline to sign the petition. If the measure qualifies, the union’s position is a no vote.

A website, ProtectYourVoteNV.com, setup by a new Protect Your Vote Nevada PAC, has also launched to oppose the initiative. The PAC’s chief officer is Chelsey Wininger, the former executive director of the Nevada Assembly Democratic Caucus who now works for Hilltop Public Solutions Nevada, a Democratic-aligned firm.

The site characterizes the petition as being “about out-of-state corporate billionaires trying to influence our elections.”

The dig is no doubt pointed at Katherine Gehl, a millionaire former food and beverage CEO, whose group, Institute for Political Innovation, is pushing the open-primary ranked-voting system nationwide. Gehl has contributed $1 million of the more than $2.2 million raised by Nevada Voters First during the first quarter of 2022, according to state filings.

But the initiative isn’t without some local backing. Donations from within the state include: $250,000 from CCEA-established PAC Strategic Horizons, $250,000 from the Nevada Association of Realtors, and $25,000 from Stations Casinos. And Cosgrove’s group, Vote Nevada, has advocated for open primaries and other election and governance reforms for years.

“It bothers me that the opposition says we’re taking money from outside the state,” says Cosgrove. “Well, stop suing us, then we won’t need money to get to the Supreme Court.”

After the initiative was filed with the Secretary of State’s office, it was immediately challenged by Nevada voter Nathaniel Helton, who has a career background working for Democrats in Nevada. Helton is being represented by prominent Democratic-aligned lawyers, including Bradley Schrager of Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin LLP and Mark Elias, the national attorney who has represented the National Democratic Party in many of its election-related lawsuits.

Their suit arguing the proposal violates Nevada’s single-subject rule for ballot questions, includes an unfunded mandate, and includes a deficient “description of effect” (the 200-word blurb that appears on ballots and explains what the measure does).

District Court Judge James Wilson rejected the Democrats’ arguments and ruled in favor of Nevada Voters First.

An appeal is still pending within the Nevada Supreme Court.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect when Nevada Voters First expects to submit their signatures.

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April Corbin Girnus
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. 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 two mutts.

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