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The Nevada state seal inside the Legislature on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 during the sixth day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The former Nevada State Democratic Party chair would like to make life easier for present and future chairs of the Nevada State Democratic Party.

To be fair to freshman Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), I understand the impulse. As a current (and soon to be former) vice-chair of the Libertarian Party of Nevada, were I a sitting state senator myself (hey, I tried), I’d be tempted to make life easier for the next generation of Libertarian Party leaders, too, if I could. However, I’d like to think, given the chance, that I would put a bit more thought and subtlety than she put into SB292, one of several election reform bills placed before the Legislature this session.

Since I’m feeling charitable, however, I’ll start with what her bill got right. There isn’t much, so this will be quick.

If one of our U.S. senators dies, resigns, or otherwise leaves a position vacant, current law allows the governor to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. It does not, however, require the governor to fill the vacancy with a new senator from the same political party as the old one. SB292 fixes this by requiring the governor to choose someone who’s been in the same political party as the original senator for at least 90 days before the former senator vacates their position. 

This is a smart, commonsense change that eliminates an obvious source of potential mischief. This is, by far, the best part of the bill.

Another change SB292 makes is that it removes the requirements for major parties to hold precinct and county conventions according to strictly defined state guidelines. I touched on these requirements before — long story short, these requirements made a lot more sense when county and state political parties had more intrinsic power than they now possess. Between the internet and the nationalization of news media consumption, Nevada’s voters are far less likely to organize inside of the state-regulated major party system than they were when those statutes were originally put into place. This change in partisan attitudes is reflected in our state’s voter registration statistics — nonpartisan voters are the second-largest group of voters in half of Nevada’s counties, and there are nearly as many nonpartisan voters as Republican voters in Clark County.

Even if all of that weren’t true, though, there’s no need for the state to legally require various conventions and micromanage delegate apportionment. Speaking as a party official in a much more thinly regulated “minor” political party, I can confirm that we still have state conventions each and every year (our next one is on May 1). Party officials, it turns out, love creating excuses to get together with large groups of people, in no small part because they’re a recurring source of social media profile pictures. Nothing impresses friends and family more than a picture of you dressed professionally in front of a large crowd.

***

Two paragraphs and fewer than 350 words later, the limits of my charitability have been exhausted. The reason for that is, in addition to the two actual problems meaningfully addressed by SB292, the bill also attempts to solve several imaginary ones, creating new ones in the process. 

For example, SB292 attempts to address the apparently unsatisfactory methods of filling untimely congressional and legislative vacancies — by creating much worse methods instead.

Unlike Senate vacancies, which are filled by the governor, congressional vacancies are filled via special election. SB292 “improves” upon this process by adding a special primary 60 days prior to the special election, thus ensuring our congressional delegation remains underrepresented for nearly an additional tenth of a congressperson’s 730-day (give or take a leap day) term. As for SB292’s “improvement” to filling legislative vacancies — giving county commissioners lists of “qualified” replacements chosen by house leadership — it’s just blatantly unconstitutional. Article 4, Section 12 of the Nevada Constitution is quite clear that county commissioners, not legislative leaders, fill untimely vacancies in the Legislature, a task which they successfully completed quite recently.

Another imaginary problem addressed by SB292 is the purported difficulty Nevada’s voters experience in completely filling out their ballots. Does the bill shrink the drug store receipt-length list of judicial candidates on our ballots by, perhaps, appointing family court judges instead of pretending voters should have an educated opinion about any of them? 

No, that would actually be helpful. 

Instead, SB292 implements a straight-ticket voting system, a practice which all but six states rightly abandoned over the past several decades. Straight-ticket voting — the practice of being able to vote for all candidates from one party by selecting a single checkbox — disenfranchises nonpartisan voters by providing two methods for voting for partisan candidates (party-line or directly) while only providing one method for voting for nonpartisan candidates. In a state with a growing nonpartisan voter population, this is a serious issue. 

To understand the impact straight-ticket voting would have on our elections, consider that Mineral County elected two nonpartisan county commissioners in 2020, defeating two Republicans. Additionally, in 2018, Esmeralda County elected a nonpartisan county commissioner, who defeated a Republican, Lander County elected a nonpartisan county treasurer, who also defeated a Republican (and nearly elected a nonpartisan county commissioner over a Republican incumbent as well), and Lincoln County elected a nonpartisan county recorder-auditor over a Republican challenger. 

If straight-ticket voting existed in the 2018 or 2020 elections, would those nonpartisan candidates have won their races? Or would the otherwise reliable Republican voters they now represent have selected the Republican Party line at the top of their ballots? 

No matter what you think the answer to that question is, I think we can all agree straight-ticket voting certainly wouldn’t have improved their chances.

***

The final imaginary problem addressed by SB292 is the supposed horde of minor party candidates swarming our ballots, confusing Nevada’s beleaguered voters with their bizarre messaging and colorful yard signs. Heaven forbid some poor, easily addled voter chooses one of these manifestly unqualified candidates, presumably by accident since there’s no way anyone would choose to vote for any of these amateurs on purpose.

To address this “crisis,” SB292, if passed, would make it harder for minor parties which do not currently enjoy ballot access to gain ballot access. Ignoring my obvious philosophical and partisan objections to this, the “solution” fails to address the supposed problem on its technical merits. 

To understand why, assume for the moment you want to run for partisan public office. 

First, you’ll want to know what you’re running for. Several races in Nevada are partisan, meaning your chosen political party will be printed on your voters’ ballots. Several, however, are not — most notably, municipal, judicial and school board races. If you’re thinking of running for most county offices, any state legislative seat (Assembly or Senate), any non-judicial statewide office, or any federal office, you will be running in a partisan race ­— meaning you will need to decide which political party, if any, you wish to adopt as your flag of convenience for the duration of your campaign.

If you choose what state statutes call a “major” political party — Republicans or Democrats, in other words, though statutorily this legally means any political party chosen by greater than 10 percent of our state’s voters on our voter registration forms — you will probably participate in a primary, unless nobody else chooses your chosen party in your particular race. 

If, on the other hand, you decide you want to run for office without a party identification at all — if you want to run as a nonpartisan independent (not to be confused with an Independent American Party candidate) — you will need to get your prospective voters to sign a petition asking for your name to appear on their ballots. The number of petition signatures you will need to gather will either be 1 percent of the total number of ballots cast for your office, or 250 signatures (if you’re running for statewide office), or 100 signatures (if you’re not running for a statewide office). 

Luckily for you, state law lets you pick which threshold to meet. 

If you’re running for Esmeralda county commissioner as a nonpartisan candidate in 2022, you’d probably rather gather the number of signatures equal to 1 percent of the total number of ballots last cast for that office (rounding up, you would need to gather two signatures) than 100. If you’re running for a statewide race, however, you would probably much rather gather 250 signatures than, say, 1 percent of the 971,801 votes (or 9,718 signatures) cast for governor in that office’s last election.

If you’re thinking of running as a “minor” political party candidate — basically, any political party which fails to meet the 10 percent voter registration threshold to be governed as a “major” political party — however, there’s an easy path and a hard path.

The easy path is to run as a candidate for a minor political party qualified to place candidates on the ballot per NRS 293.1715 — to run as a candidate for a minor political party with ballot access, in other words. For a minor political party to enjoy ballot access, either at least 1 percent of the voters in the state must select the party on their voter registration, or a candidate from that party must receive at least 1 percent of the total votes cast in congressional races in the last election. If you want to run as a candidate for one of these parties, you just need to convince them to list you as a candidate using whatever nomination procedures they have in place, then file for office during the first two weeks of March during an election year.

Currently, there are two qualified minor parties in Nevada — the Independent American Party (by virtue of voter registration) and the Libertarian Party of Nevada (by virtue of Libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen getting more than 1 percent of the 1,291,130 votes cast for Congress in 2020). 

The considerably harder path is to run as a candidate for an unqualified minor political party.

First, you still have to endure whatever nomination procedures the unqualified party has in place. Speaking from experience, Sayre’s law — “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake” — applies at least as much to minor party politics as it does to anything else. Assuming you’re nominated, however, you then have to hope your unqualified minor political party is able to successfully complete a petition drive by the third Friday in June. Unlike nonpartisan candidates, minor parties don’t get to pick and choose which threshold to meet — there’s only one, it’s 1 percent of the total votes cast in congressional races in the last election, and if they fail, none of their candidates make it on to our ballots.

The last time an unqualified minor political party successfully placed a candidate on our ballots was in 2010, when Scott Ashjian ran for US Senate as a Tea Party candidate and David Scott Curtis ran for governor as a Green Party candidate. The closest anyone’s come since then was in 2016, when the Green Party tried but failed to get enough signatures to place Jill Stein on our ballots. They ultimately came 647 signatures short after one of their signature gatherers was charged with falsifying some of the signatures. 

***

Now that you’re an expert on minor party ballot access in the state of Nevada, how do you suppose SB292 reduces needless confusion for Nevada’s voters? Does the bill make it harder for the only two minor political parties to successfully field candidates in the past decade to field candidates? 

Of course not. Doing so wouldn’t make life easier for the Nevada State Democratic Party. Independent American Party candidates are more conservative than Republicans and reliably run for office in districts Democrats generally prefer to drive really fast through when they bother visiting at all. As for the Libertarian Party, Republicans love to complain about all of the votes Libertarian candidates “steal” from them, whether there’s any truth to that or not.

No, instead SB292 just makes it functionally impossible for the Green Party to place candidates on our ballots by doubling the number of petition signatures they need to receive to gain ballot access, making the deadline for getting those signatures two weeks sooner, and requiring the signatures to be equally divided among each congressional district. 

To fully understand the impact of SB292’s changes, it’s important to understand that petition drives aren’t cheap. In 2020, the Libertarian Party paid roughly $4 per signature in states where signature gathering is required to secure ballot access in those states. At $4 per signature, Nevada’s existing ballot access petitioning requirements would cost at least $60,000 to successfully complete (over $50,000 for the first nearly 13,000 signatures, plus at least another $10,000 to pay for additional signatures to cover for those discarded due to duplication or invalidation). That amount far exceeds the annual budget of any minor political party in Nevada — and SB292, if passed, would more than double that cost by not only doubling the number of signatures required, but by also requiring petitioners to collect signatures in each of Nevada’s congressional districts, thus increasing administrative and organizational overhead. 

To be clear, SB292’s changes to minor party ballot access qualifications wouldn’t just affect the Green Party. They would also, in principle, affect every recognized minor party without ballot access, including the Alliance Party of Nevada, the Patriot Party of Nevada, the Nevada Transhumanist Party, the FreedomReform Party, and the Middleground Party, as well as any subsequently created political party. 

None of those parties, however, petitioned to place Jill Stein on Nevada’s ballots in 2016, only to come a few hundred signatures short, and that’s what this is really about. More than a few Democrats (falsely) still blame Stein for Clinton’s defeat in 2016. 

The former chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party, it would seem, knows how to carry a grudge for at least half a decade. If the several fundamental flaws in SB292 are any indication, however, she spent distressingly little of that time working on a bill which meets the needs of Nevada’s voters and instead drafted a power fantasy for Democratic political operatives.

Question is, why should Nevadans entertain a freshman senator’s quest for revenge?

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].  

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