Prior to 2004, Nevadans wishing to qualify an initiative petition for a statewide ballot were required by state law to gather signatures in at least 13 of Nevada's 17 counties.
At that point, however, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- which has jurisdiction over Nevada -- threw out similar rules in Idaho, ruling in a case there that the system violated the principle of "one man, one vote."
In essence, the appeals court ruled that residents of thinly populated counties had been given an improper veto power over the will of the vast majority of a state's residents who might live in urban areas. It wouldn't matter if virtually every resident of Clark and Washoe counties wanted a question put to a vote (for instance); a few ranchers in a cow county could veto the will of the majority simply by refusing to sign.
Those seeking to qualify initiatives for the Nevada ballot welcomed the change, since dispatching petition-gatherers to the lonely crossroads of Mina, Ruth and Austin could be both expensive and time-consuming.
But state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, and others expressed concerns that the change bypassed the rural counties, making hem irrelevant. So last year Sen. Rhoads convinced his fellow legislators to enact a new law, requiring ballot qualifying signatures to be gathered not merely in 13, but in every Nevada county.
Under a complex formula, any petition would now require 40,364 Clark County signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot -- but also 123 signatures in sparsely settled Lincoln County.
"They've just put a different shade of lipstick on the same old pig," objects Neal Levine, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has placed questions on the Nevada ballot in the past and plans to do so again. "It's an antidemocratic move designed to take a voice away from the people."
Nevada attorney Kermitt Waters, who helped finance the successful petition drive to limit government abuses of eminent domain and who plans additional future initiatives to raise the gaming tax and eliminate the property tax on private homes, agrees that the main thrust of the law is to make it more expensive and difficult to qualify questions for the ballot.
"The power brokers who run the state don't want initiatives from the people," Mr. Waters says.
So Thursday, Mr. Waters, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the ACLU joined in a federal lawsuit seeking to toss out this latest version of the "must petition in the cow counties" rule.
Since essentially the same question was already settled in the Idaho case. ACLU general counsel Allen Lichtenstein says he expects the court to "resolve the matter quite quickly."
As it should.
State Sen. Rhoads may be sincere in his desire to see residents of the rural counties consulted in such decisions, but that doesn't change the fact that the courts have already ruled on this question, and ruled correctly.
No, our system of government was never meant to be a pure democracy. There are questions that should never be decided by majority vote -- proposals to infringe basic constitutional rights come to mind.
The courts can and do toss out such unwise proposals before they ever come to a vote.
Nor should our government ever be primarily by direct ballot question. Erecting some modest hurdles to keep scores of frivolous questions from casual placement on the ballot makes sense.
But the direct citizen initiative is a wise safety valve for a populace that finds its will being stymied by barnacle-encrusted lawmakers too long beholden to the well-padded special interests. That a measure desired by a vast majority of Nevadans should fail for lack of time and funds to locate a few dozen signatories among the miners of Silverpeak or out on the blustery range of McGill or Duckwater is just plain goofy.