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The Nevada Legislature Building in Carson City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A week ago, I assumed two disappointing things would happen. I guessed that Gov. Steve Sisolak would order all schools in the state to stay closed and begin the school year with online “learning,” and even if he didn’t, that the Washoe County School Board would meekly follow the Clark County School District and do the same on its own. Science and sound policy dictated that schools – at least elementary schools – should open, but the teacher’s unions were flexing a great deal of political muscle to force the issue in the other direction.

But the future belongs to those who show up, and this time the unions were outmatched by hundreds of thousands of regular citizens who recognize that the damage we’re doing to ourselves and our children by trying to hide ourselves away from danger far outweighs the danger we’re trying to hide from. The numbers and the science were on the side of the regular people, and the governor and the school board followed their lead.

Sometimes the bravest thing a government official can do is to not do anything, and when it came to the schools, Sisolak did just that by leaving it up to school districts to decide what is best for them and their communities. This was wise. Nevada is such an enormously diverse state, and what makes sense for Lyon County likely does not for Clark County, or Washoe, or Carson City. 

I’ve actually seen some Republicans criticize the governor for this as a “lack of leadership.”  I know we all just happily accept hypocrisy in politics (except when we pretend to be outraged or shocked when a member of the other tribe does it), but we shouldn’t. Conservatives have been correctly arguing for years that the more decentralized government is, the better, because local community government is both more in tune with and directly accountable to the communities it serves. There is plenty to legitimately criticize about the governor’s performance, but our politics would be a lot healthier and happier if we gave our adversaries credit when they come around to our way of thinking, or when we find common ground. 

With the governor standing out of Washoe County’s way, our school board was brave in its own way. Once again, the teacher’s unions invested enormous amounts of time and effort in an attempt to keep our public schools closed, contrary to the health of our children and the science telling us it’s safe. But in the end, the school board kept calm and carried on with its plan to go full time in elementary schools, and a hybrid – but still half in-person – schedule for middle and high schools. 

(As an aside, the astonishing speed with which the power of the teacher’s unions collapsed before our eyes is proof of the foolishness of political tribalism. Teachers unions are little more than an ATM for the Democratic Party, which means Democrats take them for granted and Republicans ignore them. One’s influence under such circumstances is ephemeral indeed. It turns out that one size doesn’t fit all for teachers’ or voting parents’ political philosophies, either. This is an incredibly fortuitous development for education in Nevada.)

The great thing about Washoe’s plan (and this is true with most schools that are reopening) is that if families still don’t want to send their kids to school, they don’t have to. Online-only options will still be available for those at high risk (or merely paranoid). For most kids, being physically at school is critical to a quality education, but one size doesn’t have to fit all. There are circumstances where certain kids are likely to thrive with distance learning, and that option should be available.

I saw someone post something on Facebook saying that we should treat these educational choices like breastfeeding – every family should be free to do what’s best for them, and throttle back on the judgment just because you’re making a different choice. I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, if we take nothing else away from this COVID mess, it’s that a wide variety of options within the public education context – even long after we leave this disease in our collective rearview mirrors – is enormously healthy, and in more ways than one. When everyone is stuck in the same monopolistic boat, the fight over the helm is bitter indeed. Better to have a lot more boats, and let parents (not to mention educators) steer their own courses.

***

Sadly, as the second special session gets underway (as I write this), Sisolak and his fellow party members in the Legislature have forgotten what made this week so successful for them (and for Nevadans as a whole). One size doesn’t need to fit all, and American citizens free to make their own choices means win-wins for everyone. 

Take voting. We have long had many choices in how we cast our ballots in this state – early voting, in-person on election day, absentee ballots – and there are pros and cons of each. I believe lining up on Election Day at my polling place is the best, safest, and most secure way to vote, and if one size were to fit all, it would be my preference. The farther you separate the voter from the physical voting booth, the less secure or reliable any election is — but when I was in the Navy I certainly appreciated having a mail-in option, and I have to admit early voting is awfully convenient. Even in the age of COVID, those three “sizes” should be enough to meet the needs of almost every voter.

I am uncomfortable with mail-in voting, even though it is enormously convenient (I lived in Washington State where it was the only way to vote), because the chain of custody of my ballot is necessarily longer, less reliable, and less secure. And I’m even more uncomfortable giving the governor “emergency powers” to unilaterally change election rules he or she might well benefit from. (President Trump merely floated the idea of changing the election date, and it’s somehow proof that he’s about to declare himself Emperor. How is virtually limitless power to alter carefully crafted election rules by mere proclamation not far worse?)

If we are to add more mail-in voting, we should do it within the existing framework of our current election laws, striking the balance between avoiding a one-size-fits-all system and the security we all want so we can have confidence that the votes are accurately and completely counted. As Danny Tarkanian can tell you, just a handful of ballots can change an election, and the mail is not always as fast as we’d prefer.

As I write this, a heretofore secret 100-page bill respecting big changes in voting procedures was revealed and voted upon without anyone actually having time to read, process, or intelligently comment on it. What a terrible way to do the people’s business. No one willing to change election laws in such a shady and corrupt manner should complain when people fear the purpose and/or outcome of those new laws will involve shadiness and corruption.

The irony is that the new rules could well serve to limit people’s voting options in certain places, just as they did in the primary, and could ultimately lead to mail-only voting as they do in Oregon and Washington. Instead of expanding voter access, the push to prioritize mail-in ballots could shift us to a one-size-fits-all system that limits the confidence of everyone. 

***

One of the other pleasant surprises in Monday’s gubernatorial press conference was Gov. Sisolak’s discussion of focusing on individual business rather than entire industries when it came to enforcing compliance with COVID mitigation efforts. While much remains wrong with the legitimacy and efficacy of those “emergency” regulations, at least the governor saw that a one-size-fits-all law enforcement approach is counter-productive, and changed course. Let’s hope he and his fellow Democrats remember this lesson as they review new rules regarding law enforcement more generally. 

Everyone in government is seduced from time to time by the temptation to try to make one size fit all, but that disease is especially rampant on the left. We should resist it, and challenge it at every opportunity. Instead, unleash the creativity of citizens, entrepreneurs, and even government employees who wish to share innovations in public service delivery with their communities, and stop assuming that what’s right for one community or family is also right for any other.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].

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