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Election changes debated in front of Nevada justices

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about whether a proposed ballot initiative that would bring open primaries and ranked choice voting to Nevada meets constitutional muster and should be allowed to move forward.

The initiative aims to amend the state constitution to change primary and general elections for all state elections except U.S. president and vice president. Primaries would be open to all voters, with the top five finishers advancing to a ranked-choice general election, where voters list their preferences in order.

The group behind the initiative, Nevada Voters First, filed the measure in November, seeking to give the state’s growing unaffiliated voter bloc a greater say in elections. Nevada is one of nine states that holds primaries closed to registered members of the two main political parties. Unaffiliated or minor party voters represent 37 percent of the state electorate according to the state’s latest figures.

A Carson City judge in January rejected a challenge from a Churchill County resident who sued to block the petition supporters from gathering signatures, ruling that the proposed initiative met constitutional and statutory requirements in that it only addressed a single issue and did not trigger the prohibition against unfunded mandates.

Todd Bice, a Las Vegas attorney who filed the initiative, told the justices that the single-subject rule is being used to “obstruct the process” of the ballot measure, arguing that opponents could keep parsing down every part of any proposed ballot measure until every subsection is seen as its own separate subject.

Bice said that the two changes that would be brought about by the petition concern one single topic: how voters in the state choose their elected representatives.

“If it’s not a single subject under the statute, then this statute is being abused in violation of the rights of the citizenry,” Bice said. “It’s being used to compromise their ability to make effective use of their power of initiative.”

Bradley Schrager, an attorney representing those challenging the ballot measure, argued that the petition includes “two discreet and major reforms that would represent a pair of radical disjunctures with the historical conduct of Nevada elections.”

Schrager told the court that the primaries are a separate and different process than the general election in that the primaries are a party process while the general election is where all voters are able to cast their vote for their preferred representatives.

“We’re not trying to deprive anyone,” Schrager said. “We’re just saying it should have been two initiatives.”

Whether the initiative was too broad was something that Justice Lidia Stiglich honed in on, asking if other election changes, such as eliminating early voting, could also be added into this type of proposed measure.

“The umbrella that we’re opening here feels very large,” she said. “So my question is, where do you cut it off?”

Bice disagreed, saying that the measure is “about who is eligible to vote and how those votes are counted.”

The Supreme Court will issue a ruling on the case at a later date, but justices gave no indication as to when.

Under ranked choice, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote outright, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and the ballots recounted, with the ousted candidate’s votes reallocated to voters’ second-choice pick. The process continues until a candidate tops the 50 percent threshold.

To get the initiative on the ballot, supporters need to obtain signatures from more than 140,000 voters across the state, one-quarter from each of the state’s four congressional districts. Voters would need to approve the change in two successive elections. It seeks to take effect by July 2025 in time for the 2026 election.

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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