Primary suspect

Column note

Voters in four Nevada legislative races won’t be marking their ballots this November, thanks to a spectacularly bad idea approved by the 2015 Legislature. The bill, SB 499, no longer allows voters to choose between two candidates of the same party in a general election when there are no other candidates. Instead of facing all the voters in a particular district, primary voters of just one party will select the winner on June 14.

Three of the affected races are in Clark County. One, the local Assembly seat in District 26 currently held by Randy Kirner, will be decided in June since both candidates are GOP. The same malady afflicts the Washoe County Commission district 4 contest between Vaughn Hartung and Maurice Washington. Only Republicans may vote in that race

Proponents of the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously and had a bipartisan 27-15 vote in the Assembly, say the new law will prevent people from “meddling” in a district where registration is lopsided in favor of one party, districts of which Nevada has many, thanks to our rich political history of back-room dealmaking during the redistricting process every 10 years. These “safe” districts often attract candidates from only one party, since it’s virtually impossible for the other party’s candidate to win against an overwhelming registration edge.

The so-called meddling occurs when party leaders make a conscious effort to avoid sponsoring a candidate doomed to fail, thus forcing the two same-party candidates to the general election so every voter in the district gets to choose their representative. That is, it used to work that way.

Nevada has a closed primary, allowing members of political parties the opportunity to choose the candidate to best represent their philosophy in the general election. Senator James Settelmeyer, the Republican sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press that primaries are often a matter of choosing between Bud and Bud Light but that’s hardly true in recent years when Republican primary voters have had dramatically stark choices to make. One local example is the primary between Bill Raggio and Sharon Angle in 2008, a choice between a statesman and a flaky extremist.

The bottom line is every voter should get a chance to vote for the candidates from their district in the general election. If there are only two candidates and they’re from the same party, thanks to the Legislature’s gerrymandering, they should both appear on the general election ballot as they have in years past.

It’s not meddling for Democrats to choose the more ’acceptable’ Republican when there’s no Democrat in the race. Whoever wins the election will be representing everyone in the district, not just the members of one party.

And what about the non-partisan voter? This new system leaves them out completely and seriously erodes the public trust many have labored so long to create, the idea that everyone’s vote matters. Almost 20 percent of Nevada’s voters are now registered as non-partisans who are not allowed to vote in primaries. Taking away their vote in a general election is completely removing their voice from the process, the very definition of disenfranchisement.

It’s not an individual voter’s responsibility to make sure every party has a candidate for every partisan office, as proponents of the bill suggest. A voter’s responsibility is to show up every election, informed about the candidates, and cast a vote, even if it’s between two candidates of the same party.

Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley, is right when she points out, “There is no advantage to voters in SB 499. It solely benefits the two political parties.”

The 2017 Legislature should rectify this mistake, but they’ll likely reconsider only if the public is outraged enough to complain about losing their vote. Now is the perfect time to remind every legislative candidate that elections are not for political parties; they’re for the people.