Court rescues votes from pols
The wheels of justice grind slowly, but it’s always worth celebrating when they take us in the right direction.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion that will change the way Reno and Sparks City Council members are selected. The Court determined the hybrid system used by the city of Tucson is unconstitutional and violates the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The Tucson system is exactly like that of Reno and Sparks where primary voters choose nominees by ward, but the entire city votes in each race in the general election.
In Tucson, the Democratic Party insisted on keeping the hybrid system of voting in place since they enjoy a significant registration edge and city-wide elections benefit them. In Reno and Sparks, it has been Republicans who have promoted the scheme, using their registration advantage to pummel opponents in general elections, although in recent years closer registration numbers and better Democratic candidates made it more difficult to prevail.
The Court of Appeals decided primary voters in a non-partisan race cannot have the sole power to choose the candidates to appear on a general election ballot. A majority of Nevada’s state legislators approved bills to end the hybrid system in 2011 and again in 2013, using the opposite perspective. They argued that general election voters should not decide who a ward representative will be, especially since large campaign contributions from business interests often helped wealthy, white, male candidates win general elections, even in low-income minority wards.
Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the ward voting measure each time it passed. His veto messages were embarrassing. In 2011, he stated: “I do not veto this bill on the merits of ward elections. Rather, the bill contains what appears to be a technical error.” But in 2013, when legislative lawyers fixed the questionable “technical error,” he vetoed the bill again, saying “If Senate Bill 457 were enacted, the bill would limit voters’ abilities to cast their vote in electing officials to make decisions for the good of the community as a whole.” Pure partisan nonsense.
As the governor noted, the issue had been placed on the ballot as an advisory question and was soundly defeated. But the ballot question was muddled and voters had to vote no to approve ward voting. The City Council, which had a huge stake in keeping the scheme in place, ignored the ballot language recommended by a diverse citizens committee charged with vetting it after an earlier advisory question was cleverly written to also ensure the measure failed.
These Alice in Wonderland tactics matter no more, as Reno and Sparks must now address the constitutionality question, hopefully before the March filing date for next year’s elections. But there are rumors that the council is being advised to use a legal maneuver to declare that all council members run citywide in both the primary and the general elections, diminishing the power of neighborhoods to choose their own representative.
A better solution would be for the council to formally request that Gov. Sandoval add the issue to his not-so-secret upcoming special session agenda. The proper fix is to allow wards to select their own council members who can best advocate for their particular needs. The argument that this will disrupt the council due to an inherent parochial perspective obscuring the greater good is ridiculous. State legislators represent discrete districts while keeping the entire state in mind. There’s no reason to suspect a council member cannot do the same.
We must put our shameful past of openly violating the Voting Rights Act behind us and move forward with a normal ward-based election for our City Councils.
Call City Hall and the governor’s office today and tell them to get ’er done.