An initiative petition filed two weeks ago would, if successful, make political parties in Nevada largely irrelevant.
The proposal filed by Reno Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer seeks to change the June primary elections to a blanket system in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would be voted on by all registered voters no matter their party affiliation or no party affiliation. The top two vote getters would advance to the General Election in November, no matter their party affiliations, if any.
A bill that would have done the same thing failed to get a vote in the 2017 legislative session.
This proposed change applies to statewide constitutional offices and other partisan races, such as the state Assembly and Senate and local political offices, as well as U.S. House and Senate elections. The presidential nomination process would still be determined by party caucuses.
Currently the state conducts primaries for the two major parties — Republican and Democrat — in which only registered voters who are members of those parties my participate. The winner in each party advances to the November ballot. Up until 2015 if one party did not post a candidate in a given race, the top two vote getters of the other party would advance to November. The Legislature changed the law so that only the winner of the party primary advanced. This resulted in some races being uncontested, though third party candidates such as the Independent American Party and the Libertarian Party of Nevada could and did file for the General Election.
In fact, in one Assembly race in 2016 a Libertarian candidate garnered nearly 40 percent of the vote in the General Election.
The blanket system — sometimes pejoratively called the “jungle primary” system — apparently would require all candidates to be on the primary ballot, leaving voters only two choices in November.
Kieckhefer told the online Nevada Independent news outlet, “I’ve always had a fundamental problem with the idea we have taxpayer-funded elections, but citizens are required to join a private organization to participate. That always tasted wrong to me.”
According to data posted by the Secretary of State’s office 29 percent of Nevada’s active registered voters are either nonpartisan or registered as members of a minor party. Democrats account for 38 percent and Republicans 33 percent.
Frankly, we agree with the state senator about the unfairness of the state funding only the primaries of the two major parties. The whole concept of partisan party politics is to facilitate persons of like-minded political persuasions to organize and select candidates that promise to advance a given philosophy of governance.
We’ve never been in favor of forcing all taxpayers, including nonpartisans and members of other parties, to pay for the primaries the state conducts for just two parties. Let them pay for their primaries or caucuses or smoke-filled backrooms.
A blanket primary system makes it more difficult for the average voter to weigh the various candidates based on past allegiances and opens the opportunity for Fifth Column candidates to claim to be what they are not. Faux Democrats or faux Republicans could flood the ballot and split the vote for a party’s real favorite. It also lessens the visibility and potential for third party candidates who likely would be eliminated in the primary.
There is currently talk of South Carolina Republicans being encouraged to vote for socialist Bernie Sanders in that state’s primary to keep the Democratic presidential contest in turmoil. This is reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh’s self-styled “Operation Chaos” in 2008 in which he encouraged Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama to weaken Obama’s chances in November.
Politics is messy. Blanket state-run primaries create a different mess. One problem is called splintering, in which one party has perhaps only two candidates in the primary and another has a dozen office seekers, increasing the likelihood of one party winning both General Election slots.
Adding to the potential tumult, in 2019 lawmakers approved a law allowing people to register to vote on the day of an election.
For this proposal to advance backers must gather nearly 100,000 valid signatures by November with about 25,000 coming in each congressional district. If successful, the initiative would be presented to the 2021 Legislature, which would have 40 days to approve it. If not, it would appear on the 2022 ballot.
No primary would be better than a blanket primary. Let the parties choose their candidates as they see fit and at their own expense. That is freedom of association, and gives voters clearer choices.
A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.