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Nevadans may have one fewer political party on ballots in 2024

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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It’s easy enough to get on Nevada’s ballots if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It’s both a little easier and considerably more complicated if you’re not.

The easy part, if you’re not a Republican or a Democrat and you’re running for partisan public office — most elected offices you’ve heard of, like governor or assemblyperson, in other words, plus a few others — is you don’t have to think about primaries. Those, according to statute, are reserved for what the law calls major political parties — the two political parties you’ve heard of who have won nearly every partisan election in this state since the Silver Party stopped being a going concern during the Taft Administration. Consequently, assuming you meet the minimum requirements to file and serve for public office, you can rest easy, secure in the knowledge your name will be on your voters’ general election ballots in November.

The harder part, however, depends on how you want to run for partisan office without being a Republican or a Democrat.

If you’re planning on running as a nonpartisan candidate — as someone without any party affiliation at all — for a partisan office, then the law requires you to run as an independent candidate (not to be confused with the Independent American Party). To do so, you either need to get a petition supporting your candidacy signed by 250 voters (if you’re running for statewide office), 100 voters (if you’re running for county or district office), or one percent of the number of registered voters in your county or district — whichever is lesser. In some races in rural Nevada, you might run out of signature lines before you run out of fingers and toes.

If you’re planning on running as what is colloquially referred to as a “third party” candidate, however — a minor party candidate, in statutory terms — then you better hope your party of choice has ballot access.

***

Creating a political party in Nevada is almost laughably easy. Just write a certificate of existence with the name of your party, the names of its officers, the names of the members of its executive committee, and the name of the person authorized to file the list of candidates for partisan office, then submit it to the Secretary of State. 

It’s not hard. Here’s a free template:

Today’s Date

Your Political Party

Certificate of Existence

Nevada Secretary of State

ATTN: Election Division

101 North Carson Street, Suite 3

Carson City, NV 89701

This certificate of existence, pursuant to NRS 293.171, hereby declares the existence of a new political party, named Your Political Party, to the office of the Secretary of State. The First Officer of Your Political Party is Your Name. The Second Officer of Your Political Party is Their Name. The First Officer and Second Officer constitute the Executive Committee of Your Political Party. The person authorized to file the list of candidates for partisan office for Your Political Party is the First Officer, Your Name.

For any questions regarding this submission, please contact First Officer Your Name at Your Phone Number or Your Email Address.

Sincerely,

You

Go ahead — copy and paste that into the word processor or text editor of your choice, personalize it a bit, and mail it to the Secretary of State. Tell them The Nevada Independent sent you.

Legally, the only real requirement is plurality — since the law says your certificate of existence must have names (plural) of officers (plural), then your new political party must have at least two members. Even that modest requirement was seldom adhered to strictly, however — if the Legal Marijuana NOW Nevada Party ever had more than one member when they filed their certificate of existence in 2016, the acting chairperson, treasurer, and secretary never bothered to commit their names to electronic paper.

Getting your new political party’s candidates on any of Nevada’s ballots, however, is a bit more involved, which is why only two minor parties have succeeded at doing so since 2010. NRS 293.1715 doesn’t grant ballot access to just any group of nobodies who send the secretary of state a letter. Instead, it provides minor parties three options to earn and maintain ballot access. 

If your party is extremely lucky, at least one percent of Nevada’s voters will voluntarily choose to register to vote under your party affiliation — if they do, you automatically get to file your candidates for partisan public office. This is why the Independent American Party — which has attracted nearly 100,000 very confused voters who think they’re not actually registered with any political party at all — will remain on our ballots until either the heat death of the universe, the end of electoral politics in this state, or until someone finally makes them remove “Independent” from their name.

If your party is moderately lucky, at least one percent of those who vote for a Nevadan congressional candidate will also vote for one of your party’s candidates somewhere on their ballot. This could be any of your party’s candidates — it could be your presidential candidate, it could be a candidate for Clark County District Attorney, or it could even be a Washoe County commissioner candidate. This, with a couple of exceptions we’ll get into shortly, is how the Libertarian Party has kept its candidates on Nevada’s ballots since the law was changed in 1993 to require a minor party candidate to receive only one percent of Nevada’s congressional votes instead of the three percent originally required in 1987.

One of the exceptions happened because the Libertarian Party was extremely lucky in 2020 — none of the party’s candidates met this threshold in 2018, but ballot access was maintained because just over one percent of Nevada’s voters were registered Libertarian on January 1, 2020. They were considerably less lucky, however, when none of the party’s candidates reached the one percent threshold in 2000 — and consequently lost ballot access going into 2002.

After the 2000 election, the Libertarian Party had to earn ballot access for its candidates in 2002 the same way the Green Party tried to earn ballot access for itself in 2016 — they put together a statewide petition drive. Unlike a nonpartisan candidate, however, they had to collect far more than 250 signatures. A political party without existing ballot access needs at least as many signatures as one percent of the congressional voters in the last election for any of its candidates to show up on a single ballot. Because 1,355,607 Nevadans voted for (or against) a congressional representative in 2020, minor parties without ballot access need to collect at least 13,557 signatures this year — and, as many signatures are duplicates or invalid, they should probably collect another 7,000 signatures or so just to be on the safe side.

The deadline for turning those signatures in, by the way, is 10 days before the third Friday of June (June 7, this year), long before most voters are even thinking about an election. If your party doesn’t have enough signatures, or if too many of your signatures are thrown into the trash (sorry, Green Party), none of your candidates will make it onto a single Nevadan ballot.

This is where most candidates give up — or, more accurately, decide it’s not worth betting their presence on Nevada’s November ballots on the petitioning skills of the Green or Legal Marijuana NOW or whatever other minor party. If a candidate runs as a nonpartisan, they need no more than 250 signatures, and frequently far fewer. Run as a nonpartisan candidate in either an Esmeralda or Lincoln county commission district race and you only need about as many signatures as you have fingers. If you want to run in the same race as a Green Party candidate, you better hope someone can miracle 20,000 signatures or so for you by the beginning of June.

Losing ballot access in Nevada, in other words — by failing to have enough registered voters and failing to secure enough votes in an election — is catastrophic for minor parties. To overcome the loss, minor parties have to commit to spending tens of thousands of dollars (well in excess of what a minor party can usually expect to raise in a decade) on a statewide petition drive with no guarantee of success. Failing that, they disappear off of the ballot entirely, never to return.

***

The Libertarian Party of Nevada might — maybe — run the risk of losing ballot access this year.

To understand why, we need to take a look at how the Libertarian Party has secured ballot access for itself in the past:

During presidential years, the Libertarian Party has been incredibly fortunate. Gary Johnson ran some truly impressive campaigns, for a minor party candidate, in 2012 and 2016, and Jo Jorgensen enjoyed a bit of afterglow from those runs in 2020. 

Support for the rest of the party’s candidates, however, has been lackluster for over a decade.

Part of the problem is Nevada’s status as a swing state — because every election in Nevada feels like it could go to either major party, both of the major parties are far more likely to run candidates in every partisan race than they were in the past. In 1998, for example, there were no Democratic candidates for secretary of state or treasurer — consequently, those who weren’t interested in voting for Republicans Dean Heller or Brian Krolicki had to either vote for a minor party candidate or vote for None of These Candidates. 

Nowadays, however, there are Republicans in every partisan race in the state and Democrats in most of them (except in rural Nevada, where there aren’t enough voters to reach the necessary threshold to maintain ballot access even if a Libertarian won something for once). Consequently, there are fewer races, like Kim Schjang’s run for state Senate against David Parks in 2016, where a Libertarian can get double-digit percentages of the vote in a race by being the only opposing candidate.

The other part of the problem is that Americans are frankly just less likely to vote for minor party candidates than they used to be. From 1980 to 2000, minor party presidential candidates earned over five percent of the popular vote three times — once when John Anderson ran in 1980, followed by Ross Perot’s two runs in 1992 and 1996. Not a single minor party presidential candidate has repeated the feat since — Gary Johnson’s most successful run, in 2016, only netted him 3.28 percent. Ralph Nader, meanwhile, didn’t even earn that much in 2000 — he only received 2.74 percent of the popular vote.

Even those modest percentages are enough to secure ballot access in Nevada, however — provided the rest of the party’s candidates can achieve even that much. Other than its presidential tickets, however, the Libertarian Party’s statewide candidates have routinely failed to even reach the necessary 1 percent threshold for over a decade. The last time a non-presidential Libertarian candidate won over 1 percent of Nevada’s votes in a statewide race was in 2004, when Thomas L. Hurst ran for Senate. Tim Hagan came closest since then in 2018 during his run for Senate, but he only picked up 0.96 percent. Art Lampitt, Jr. didn’t even earn 5,000 votes from his gubernatorial run in 2010 — he needed at least another 2,000 votes to reach the necessary threshold. 

During non-presidential years, however, there has been a comparatively surefire way for the Libertarian Party to maintain ballot access, at least when the party could be bothered to execute it — run someone for a Clark County partisan race.

The reason is mathematics — more than 70 percent of Nevada’s voters live in Clark County — mixed with a greater willingness for voters to vote for a minor party candidate as they get closer to the bottom of their ballots. When a minor party is lucky, they stumble into a two-way race in Nevada’s most populous county, like the Libertarian Party did in 2014 when Jim Duensing ran for district attorney against the man who was prosecuting him for resisting arrest at a traffic stop. Even if they’re less lucky, however, like in 2010, minor party candidates for offices like county assessor, county recorder, or public administrator routinely get nearly 2 percent of the vote. That doesn’t sound like much, but 2 percent of 70 percent of the state’s voters works out to 1.4 percent — not enough to make much news, but more than enough to secure ballot access and allow your party’s candidates to run for office without a petition drive in the subsequent election season.

When the Libertarian Party hasn’t thrown someone at a Clark County partisan office during a non-presidential year — like 2022 — their luck has been pressed to the wall. In 2018, they only kept ballot access because, for the first and last time in state party history, over 1 percent of the registered voters in the state registered as Libertarians — they are currently 14 voters shy of that threshold now. In 2006, it took Tom Koziol securing over 5 percent of the vote in his run for Washoe County assessor to reach the necessary 1 percent statewide threshold — and he barely made it.

***

The reason I bring all of this up is two-fold.

The first reason is, just like in 2018, the Libertarian Party of Nevada chose not to run anyone for a Clark County-wide partisan office. They’re not even running anyone for a Washoe County-wide partisan office. The closest they’re coming to running anyone that far down-ballot is a Clark County commissioner candidate (not a single one of those has ever secured ballot access for the Libertarian Party) and a Washoe County commissioner candidate (one of those somehow actually did keep the Libertarian Party’s ballot access alive — Ernest Walker pulled the improbable off in a two-way race for county commissioner in 1996). Instead, they’re running candidates in every statewide race, from senator and governor to controller — races which, historically, the party has historically struggled to get more than a few thousand votes in.

Additionally, only one race — Darby Lee Burn’s candidacy against Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas) in Assembly District 4 — is a two-way race. Securing ballot access from an Assembly race isn’t impossible — Nate Santucci received enough votes to secure ballot access in his run for Assembly District 22 in 2008 — but it’s not exactly probable. Despite earning nearly 40 percent of the vote and running a comparatively energetic campaign, by minor party candidate standards, Dennis Hof still fell 100 votes short of the necessary threshold when he ran against James Oscarson in 2016.

If a single paper candidate — a candidate who paid the filing fee and then disappeared for the rest of the year — filed for Clark County clerk before the filing deadline, that candidate would be in a three-way race at the bottom of the ballot where a few extra voters will happily vote for a minor party candidate because the stakes are, in their minds, nonexistent. Instead, the party’s ballot access fortunes likely rest upon two three-way statewide races — the attorney general race, which is likely to be high profile this year (and, consequently, one voters are less likely to vote for minor party candidates) and the race for controller, which might — maybe — have a low enough profile in Nevada’s voters minds for a few thousand voters to vote for a Libertarian while they vote for major party candidates farther up their ballots.

Maybe.

The second reason is admittedly personal. I used to be a member of the Libertarian Party of Nevada, and while I was one, I was usually in a position to strongly influence where we filed our candidates (unlike major parties, minor parties in Nevada actually get to pick and choose who runs under their banner and where). In 2018, however, my colleagues, who were flush with confidence following Gary Johnson’s unprecedented success in 2016, talked us out of running any paper candidates for a Clark County-wide partisan office — we were, you see, beyond running paper candidates and worrying about ballot access.

In retrospect, we were most certainly not.

After 2018, I started to wonder if I was sinking my energies into something which did some long-term good, or if I was just wasting my time. Two years later, I developed severe ideological differences with some of the new activists and leaders who joined after the pandemic and grew increasingly dissatisfied with the systemic dysfunction of the national party. Finally, tired of spending time on a project I no longer believed in anymore, I left the Libertarian Party.

Even so, even with all of the differences I’ve developed with the party through the years, I spent over a decade organizing and running for office with the party to, if not succeed on my or our own merits, to at least ensure somebody could succeed under that banner under their own merits at some later point down the road. I may not agree with what the party stands for today, I certainly have no intention of voting for their candidates, and I certainly won’t encourage anyone else to — but, for purely personal and sentimental reasons, I would still miss seeing Libertarian Party candidates on my ballot.

It would mean all of my efforts for the party — all of them — were ultimately for nothing.

Which… perhaps they were. 

Perhaps, given the direction the party is taking these days, it’s for the best if they were.

Whether it’s really for the best or not, though, Nevadans are seeing fewer and fewer choices on our ballots, and that’s not something I can cheer for. If past experience — the experience of the Green Party, the Natural Law Party, the Tea Party, or the other minor parties who no longer place candidates on our ballots anymore — is any guide, if the Libertarian Party doesn’t earn ballot access this year, we may never get their choice back.

Correction: (5/27/22 at 7:03 p.m. ): The original version of this column said that the last time a non-presidential Libertarian candidate won more than 1 percent of Nevada’s votes in a statewide race was in 2004, when Thomas L. Hurst ran for Senate — and that Tim Hagan (it was actually Jared Lord) had come closest since then.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered nonpartisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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