Primary death

New political group wants one election, not two

Nevadans go to the polls twice in each election year. An initiative petition proposes ending primary elections.

Nevadans go to the polls twice in each election year. An initiative petition proposes ending primary elections.


The initiative petition can be read at

A Sparks man, Doug Goodman, moved to Nevada from Livermore, California. After he arrived in Nevada, he registered as a Republican, as he had all his life. But by 2010, he said he was weary of the “political climate and lack of civility,” so he switched his voter registration to non-partisan.

“The party no longer represented me,” he said this week. “It was probably one of the toughest decisions I ever made in my life.”

As a result, he discovered that now the only things he could vote on in primary elections were judgeships and other nonpartisan races like school board.

He went to the Nevada Legislature seeking legislation changing the way people vote. At his first legislature, in 2015, there was a Republican majority. At his second legislature, in 2017, there was a Democratic majority. Neither took action on his bill. That may have been a mistake. He has now set up a political group, Nevadans for Election Reform, and filed an initiative petition to end primary elections altogether and let everyone run in the November general election with ranked choice voting (RCV) for candidates.

The petition does not really define ranked choice clearly, except to say it “means the number; 1, 2, or 3 assigned by the voter to express the voter’s choice for that candidate.” The NER website is not much more helpful: “To learn how ranked choice voting works watch this video.”

None of that helps a voter exiting a grocery store to decide whether to sign the petition on a moment’s notice when asked by a signature gatherer. More than 112,000 signatures are needed by November. When we asked for a capsule explanation of how ranked choice voting would work that could be given to a voter, Goodman said he did not think petition signers would have a problem.

“No, I don’t think they are going to have difficulty understanding it,” he said. He said he thinks the petition itself provides a “pretty clear explanation” of ranked choice voting, and, if that is not enough, there will be literature explaining it and signature gatherers to answer questions.

Other sources are not great at defining the practice, but all tend to agree that voters can rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice. But after that commonality, there are myriad other ways it can work. In California, for instance, it does not eliminate primary elections as Goodman envisions for Nevada.

In a common RCV election, voters rank the candidates from first to last, though they have the option of voting for just one candidate. If a candidate reaches a majority of first-rank votes, s/he wins. If not, the candidate who comes in last is dropped and his or her second rank votes are distributed among surviving candidates. This could go on for a while, depending on the number of candidates, until one candidate wins. This process will be more familiar to Nevada voters who participated in presidential caucuses.

RCV is used in a number of countries, including Ireland and Australia.

Primary evolution

The primary election was originally a reform. It was part of the agenda of the Progressive Movement that spanned the era from the 1890s to the 1920s, along with womens’ suffrage, utility regulation, prohibition, antitrust law and elected U.S. senators.

The first primary election was held by Democrats in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, in 1842, but it was half a century before it gained real force.

Nevada parties toyed with primaries—Republicans in the 1870s held primaries if party members took various loyalty oaths. The Silver Party in 1904 scheduled a primary, then canceled it. The Nevada Democratic Party held the state’s first presidential primary in 1912.

But it took legislative action to get real. In 1909, the Nevada Legislature enacted a primary election law. Some party leaders did not react well. A court challenge was mounted, rumored to be supported by Republican U.S. Sen. George Nixon. Nevertheless, the state’s first primary took place on schedule in 1910, and primaries have been held ever since. There was apparently some opposition as late as 1936, because the Clark County Democratic Party came to the defense of the primary in that year.

The purpose of primaries was to take the decision on who parties nominated out of the thinly attended party nominating conventions at local and state levels and give it to an expanded electorate within that party.

The problem became that political parties were, in their conventions, performing a public function—narrowing which names could go on the general election ballot. By taking the task from party leaders and delegates in convention and handing it to any and all members of the parties was seen as an enlightened improvement.

And it was. It was one of many steps that democratized politics. What no one in the early 1900s imagined was a nation decades away that doesn’t much care about party politics and whose voters find, when they go to the polls, they can only vote on judges and other minor matters—not on who goes on the general election ballot for major offices.

In understanding how this worked to everyone’s satisfaction for so long, it’s important to keep in mind that political parties are private organizations. Who they choose as their leaders is up to them, just as who heads the Kiwanis and the American Dental Association is left to them. Kiwanians cannot choose who leads the dentists and vice versa. It’s also important to remember that when primaries came on the scene, voters were deeply loyal to their political parties, something that is far less true in 2018.

Few legislators back then imagined anyone wanting to vote in a party primary other than their own, and few people failed to register with some political party, so the issue of unaffiliated voters only getting to vote on judges was miniscule, if it existed at all. Each party decided for itself who it wanted representing it in the general election. Democrats could not vote in Republican or other party primaries because they had no right to choose who represented the other parties. If that had been permitted, it could have led to all kinds of mischief—and did, in those states that opened primaries in various ways.

In California, a court ruling made it possible for candidates to cross-file into the other party’s primary. Earl Warren was once the nominee for governor of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

When Michigan and New Hampshire made it possible for voters registered with one party to cross over into another party’s primary, there were consequences. In 1968, when Richard Nixon’s principal competitor in the New Hampshire presidential party dropped out, some Republican voters are believed to have crossed over and voted Democratic, giving Vietnam dove Eugene McCarthy a boost in his race against hawk Lyndon Johnson. In 1972 in Michigan, Republicans—who again had no contest in their own party—crossed over to give white supremacist George Wallace a win in the Democratic presidential primary.

Goodman’s group seeks to eliminate primaries altogether. That is a much more extreme version of ranked choice voting than most states have considered up to now.Ω