Voters in Nevada on Tuesday will have an opportunity to radically overhaul how elections in the state work—and to guarantee more political competition in the future.
Voters everywhere else might want to take note.
A proposed constitutional amendment on the Nevada ballot would do away with party-specific primary elections and replace them with a top five primary system—in which all candidates compete in the same first-round contest, with the five top vote-getters advancing to the general election ballot. The same constitutional amendment, if approved, would institute ranked choice voting for the general election among the five candidates who advanced past the primary phase.
That’s similar to the model recently adopted by Alaska—voters there approved a top four primary and ranked-choice general election in a 2020 ballot question—but including five candidates in the final round ensures even more robust political competition in the election that most voters pay attention to.
There are good arguments both in favor and against ranked-choice voting. Those who support it point out, correctly, that it more fairly and accurately captures the will of the voters than a simple first-past-the-post system where the candidate with the largest pile of first-place votes wins. Critics are right to point out that it can be confusing—a criticism that can’t be merely dismissed as the result of voters being unfamiliar with how it works because a big part of the legitimacy of any election system is whether the participants see it as legitimate.
Those debates will continue, but the more important part of the proposed change in Nevada (like in Alaska) is the elimination of single-party primary elections. That’s a much-needed change for both principled and practical reasons.
As a matter of principle, it makes little sense for state governments to pay for primary elections, which are nothing more than internal processes for parties to choose their nominees. Turning the primary election into what would more accurately be described as a first round of the general election—with all qualified candidates, regardless of party affiliation, competing in the same contest in front of all voters—eliminates that concern.
Practically, a top-five primary could also fix the outward drift of both major political parties, which are increasingly captured by their more extreme factions. Because candidates have to survive an internal primary in order to advance to the general election under the current model used in most states, candidates are pressured to appeal to the groups of voters who show up for the lower turnout primaries. The result is often that poor general election candidates—that is, candidates who do not represent the interests of the median voter in a state or district—win the major party primaries, forcing voters to choose between the lesser of two evils in the general election.
“The root cause of our political dysfunction is that November elections in this country are for the most part meaningless,” Katherine Gehl, the businesswoman who led the effort to get Nevada’s proposed election overhaul on the ballot, told Vox. “Most November voters are wasting their time, which is not only profoundly undemocratic and unrepresentative, it’s the reason we can’t solve our complex problems and make necessary trade-offs.”
The greater level of political competition that a top five primary provides would potentially break that fever. A Trumpist Republican, an establishment Republican, a moderate Democrat, a progressive, and a libertarian might all find a place on the second-round general election ballot. Instead of choosing between the lesser of two evils, voters might get be able to vote for what they actually want. Wild.
It’s unlikely that reforms like this will be pushed by the two major parties, which would like to keep as much control over the process as possible. In Nevada, for example, the proposed constitutional amendment was the result of a citizen-led initiative that required getting more than 140,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Then, it had to survive a court challenge brought by Nevada Democrats who opposed the change. In June, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected that challenge and ordered the amendment be put before the voters. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, the state’s two Democratic senators, and Nevada’s lone Republican congressman all oppose the ballot question, according to The Nevada Independent.
Nevertheless, polls suggest voters are open to the idea. But this is only the beginning of a long process. The same amendment must pass in two consecutive elections before it is adopted, so Nevadans will face the same choice in 2024.
We’ve heard a lot about how democracy is on the ballot this Election Day. In Nevada, that’s literally true. And unlike a lot of other ideas floating around out there, this proposal is one that actually will give voters more of a say about who represents them in government.
No wonder both major parties dislike it.