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Lawsuit seeks to block open primary election initiative

CARSON CITY — A new lawsuit seeks to strangle in the cradle a ballot initiative aimed at bringing open primaries and ranked choice voting to Nevada.

A complaint filed in Carson City District Court Monday with a Churchill County resident as plaintiff cites legal and technical problems with the initiative, filed with the secretary of state’s office last month.

The initiative aims to amend the state constitution to change primary and general elections for all state office 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.

Under ranked choice, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the ballot 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.

According to the complaint, the initiative “proposes myriad sweeping changes” that “would do away with primaries in which party voters choose their standard-bearers to run in the general elections” and “entirely replace the system under which the candidate who wins the most votes wins the (general) election.”

Technical flaws

It charges that the petition goes against state law by addressing more than one subject — changes to both primary and general elections — as well as mandating unfunded expenditures to set up and run the new elections and failing to “provide essential information” in the description of effect that will be read by voters asked to sign. It seeks to block circulation of the initiative petition or invalidate any petition signatures and prevent the secretary of state from putting the measure on the ballot.

Among its flaws, plaintiff’s attorney Bradley Schrager said, the initiative “proposes major shifts in the party primary nomination system while at the same time attempting wholesale, unrelated changes to how general election votes are cast and tabulated.”

“One reason we have the single-subject law is to avoid multiple, dramatic ruptures in Nevada law through the ballot initiative process,” he said.

Todd Bice, the Las Vegas attorney who filed the initiative on behalf of Nevada Voters First, did not immediately respond to request for comment on the complaint.

Closed primary in Nevada

Nevada is one of nine states that run closed primaries; 15 states have fully open primaries, and others employ hybrid systems. Ranked-choice elections are gaining in the U.S., with nearly 100 jurisdictions expected to use ranked-choice voting at their next elections.

Opponents of open primaries, typically aligned with established political parties, argue that only party members should elect nominees and that open systems sabotage the process. They refute proponents’ claims that closed primaries disenfranchise unaffiliated voters, tend to produce ideologically extreme nominees and, since the state pays for elections, should be open to all voters.

Proponents of the ranked-choice voting say it gives nonpartisans more say in elections and helps elect candidates with broad-based support. Opponents say the method is confusing and goes against the “one person, one vote” principle, where the top vote-getter can actually lose. Some half dozen efforts to bring it to Nevada, either through legislation or citizen initiative, have failed to advance in recent years.

To reach the ballot, the initiative would need signatures from more than 140,000 voters in the state, 35,000 from each of the four congressional districts. Petitions have not yet begun to circulate. To pass, voters would need to approve it in 2022 and again in 2024. It would take effect by July 2025 in time for 2026 races.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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