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Republicans’ early presidential primary bill has potential

Nevada: First in the West!

That’s the intent behind a new bill introduced by a cadre of Republican lawmakers, seeking to retain Nevada’s position as an early primary state and decider of presidential mettle.

The bill would move Nevada’s primary election — currently held in June — to the next-to-last Tuesday in January, and include a presidential preference election along with the other voting. The bill would also give Nevada flexibility in the event that another western state tried to jump the calendar and hold an earlier primary, by allowing us to move our voting earlier in January.

Best of all? The party-run caucuses would be eliminated, and along with them the mistakes that come when political parties try to run ballot-counting operations. (Recall that in 2012, the Clark County Republican Party’s Saturday caucus results were not known until 1 a.m. Monday morning, although far fewer voters participated than had been anticipated.)

The bill is being sought by state Sens. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden; Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas; Dr. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, and Assemblymen Jim Wheeler, R-Minden and Pete Livermore, R-Carson City. But it tracks with some of the things that Secretary of State Ross Miller has said would be necessary to replace the party caucus system with a primary.

In a caucus, voters meet in groups, discuss the candidates and issues and try to forge consensus around their favorite politician. It’s a more complicated, time-consuming system compared with a primary, in which voters simply indicate their preference on a voting machine along with the other races.

But there are some problems with the Republican bill.

First, delegates to the national party conventions would be required to vote for the winner of the state’s presidential primary, a winner-take-all approach that may not sit well with national party rules, or fans of candidates who lose in a close race.

Second, by combining all primary races onto a single ballot in January, the early primary system would move politicking for state and local offices into November and December of the preceding year. (“Merry Christmas, and I approve this message! Ho, ho, ho!”) It would be especially hard on candidates who see the primary date shift in the event that another Western state tries to jump the calendar.

And why limit it to Western states? In 2012, it was Florida’s Legislature that upset the carefully crafted political calendar and forced other states to move up their dates. (Iowa and New Hampshire are especially prickly about having the first caucus and primary in the nation; New Hampshire’s secretary of state has sweeping authority to set his state’s primary at whatever date is necessary to go first.)

It would be better — albeit more costly — to hold an early presidential preference primary at a date to be determined by the secretary of state, and then hold a second primary on a fixed date in June. That way, Nevada would have the flexibility to hold an early primary — and thus be in a position to influence the presidential field early, but also allow candidates for other offices to have a fixed date for their elections that wouldn’t require walking neighborhoods alongside trick-or-treaters in October. The cost to the state of the early primary could be defrayed by a generous filing fee charged to presidential candidates.

A drawback: There would be three elections in presidential years, one for a presidential primary, a second regular primary and the general election in November. But it’s a reasonable price to pay in order to stay high in the primary lineup.

But having had a taste of early presidential candidate picking, Nevada should keep its newfound clout. This bill may be a good first step on that road.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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