Control of grass roots snarled by politics

The wheels of justice grind slowly and sometimes derail just as the goal is in sight. Thus was the curious and frustrating battle over ward voting in Reno and Sparks during the 2017 Nevada Legislature.

Our two Washoe County cities are among the last few municipalities in Nevada to use a hybrid system of voting whereby primary voters choose the top two candidates in each defined ward, or neighborhood, while voters from throughout the city determine the victor during the general election. The hybrid system has been promoted by Republicans and the business sector as the “best of both worlds” but in reality it ensures that neighborhood activists, minorities and low-income people with no access to the campaign cash needed to compete city-wide lose most of the time to their better-funded, mostly white, business-supported rivals.

Democratic legislators, including myself, have worked for years to correct this inequity, believing it is a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Legislation mandating ward voting in both the primary and general election has been approved in several recent legislative sessions, only to be vetoed by Gov. Sandoval for nonsensical reasons having everything to do with wanting to maintain the current system, which favors Republican interests.

The “hybrid” system of voting disenfranchises voters, plain and simple. Case in point from the 2016 Sparks city council elections is Denise Lopez, who worked tirelessly to convince Ward 1 voters that she would be the best representative only to have residents from other parts of the city determine her fate.

Lopez competed in a three-way primary last June, and Ward 1 residents gave her a huge win over her two opponents with 54.82 percent of the vote. Her competitors earned 25.25 percent and 19.93 percent, respectively. Despite winning a majority of the vote, Lopez had to compete in the general election because it was held city-wide. In November, 85.59 percent of the votes for the Ward 1 representative came from outside Ward 1, allowing other residents to choose the Ward 1 Council member. Final results gave Lopez 49.12 percent of the vote while Donald Abbott received 50.88 percent, a difference of 649 votes.

Adding an additional insult to democracy, 58.82 percent of Ward 1 voters chose Lopez in the general election while Abbott only received 41.18 percent of the vote. As community organizer Tess Opferman told legislators, “It’s fundamentally unfair that anyone, regardless of race, should win so handily in the primary and in the ward they are expected to represent, but lose the election.”

SB 202, which corrected the ward voting situation in Sparks, easily won approval by the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Sandoval while a similar bill, AB 36, sponsored by Reno’s Charter Committee, was moving along nicely until it derailed on May 26. That’s when Senator Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, successfully changed the bill on the floor of the Senate at Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve’s request to add a poisonous amendment to make the Mayor “more than” a council member and give her veto power over Reno Council decisions. Many political observers believe the real motivation behind the move was to clear the way for former term-limited Councilmember Jessica Sferrazza, a close friend of Schieve’s, to run for Mayor.

There was no debate regarding the strengths and weaknesses of changing Reno’s governance model as the surprise floor amendment precluded any sort of public hearing, causing howls of protests from Reno residents who saw the move as a power grab by Mayor Schieve.

The Assembly, led by Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, rightly rejected the amendment and sent the bill to the governor in its original form. At press time, it was unclear whether Sandoval will accept ward voting in Reno this time or force legislators to bring back the issue once again in 2019.