What’s in a name?

As anyone who has dealt with him knows, Washoe Voter Registrar Dan Burk is a skilled and capable public administrator.

His office handles not just the voter registration implied by his title, but nearly all matters related to county elections—deputizing additional registrars, selecting and setting up polling places, and vote counting, for instance. It’s a heavy load with limited resources, even more limited during this recession.

But Burk seems to have a blind spot about the name of the Democratic Party. At least twice now, in 2008 and in this months’ primary, he has printed Democratic Party ballots headed “Democrat Party.” This is a term concocted by Republicans to try to dissociate their opponents from the notion of democracy.

A couple of weeks before this happened the first time in Washoe County, in 2008, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker magazine about the “Democrat Party” label:

“‘Democrat Party’ is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt,” Hertzberg wrote. “Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but ‘Democrat Party’ is jarring, verging on ugly. It fairly screams ‘rat.’ At a slightly higher level of sophistication, it’s an attempt to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation.”

Not all Republicans agree with this tactic. At the 2008 Republican National Convention platform hearings, Indiana delegate Jim Bopp insisted on civility in the language of the party platform. “We should afford them the respect that they are entitled and call them by their legal name,” he said. The committee agreed.

More to the point, Nevada law requires that the party be listed on the ballot by its chosen name. Nevada Revised Statute 293.263 reads, “On the primary ballots for a major political party, the name of the major political party must appear at the top of the ballot.”

“Democrat Party” may be the name of some party, but it’s not the name of any party in Nevada. The local Democratic Party’s name can be found in its corporate registration with the Nevada Secretary of State. It’s registered as “Democratic Party of Nevada.” Deviation from that language is a violation of law, since it designates a non-existent party. Burk says he does not see the negative meaning of the unofficial name, but that’s not really the issue. Varying the name is not a legal option.

Some states have laws allowing political party officials to approve ballot forms for their party. This is fair and logical. At one time, there were no primary elections. Parties selected their candidates in conventions. During the Progressive era, laws were passed to give the party’s rank-and-file voters a voice in choosing their party’s nominees. It happened at the 1909 legislature in Nevada. But those primaries are still essentially party functions in which the members of a party speak and choose their representatives for the general election. They have a right to a voice in the process of creating their ballots.

This is not a complete remedy for problems. In the 2000 Florida recount battle, it became known that a Democratic official approved the butterfly ballot, not realizing that it allowed votes for more than one presidential candidate. But it’s unlikely that any official of any political party would miss correcting the name of his or her party, and the Nevada Legislature should consider such a procedure. Until then, if the law allows it, Nevada’s secretary of state should prescribe the correct names of political parties used at the county level.