Nevada steps toward open primaries, ranked-choice voting

Nevada voters approved a ballot measure to shift the state to open primaries and ranked-choice voting, though they’ll have to approve it again in 2024 for it to take effect.
An election worker processes ballots at the Clark County Election Department, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Nevada voters approved a ballot measure to shift the state to open primaries and ranked-choice voting.

They’ll have to do so again in two years for the change to take effect, as constitutional initiatives in the Silver State require two successive votes of the people.

Ballot Measure 3 led 53% to 47% as of Sunday morning. It received 55% support from vote-rich Clark County – one of only three Nevada counties where the measure received a majority vote, along with Washoe and Mineral.

“With the passage of Question 3, Nevadans have shown their desire to put Nevada voters first and address political extremism and polarization in our state,” Mike Draper of Nevada Voters First said in a statement.

The constitutional amendment takes a two-step approach to overhauling how Nevadans choose their elected officials, including members of Congress and state lawmakers.

It would end the state’s party-based primary system and replace it with an open primary in which the top five finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Even more dramatically, Ballot Measure 3 seeks to reshape Nevada’s general elections by allowing voters to rank the candidates, rather than choosing only one.

Under the system, any candidate that received more than 50% of the vote in the general election would be declared the winner of a particular race. In races where no one eclipsed 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Voters who selected that candidate as their first choice would then have their vote transferred to their second choice. That process would repeat until one candidate cleared 50%.

Only two other states, Maine and Alaska, use ranked-choice voting. One county and 53 cities do as well, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting was also on the ballot in nine cities and counties this November. According to tracking by FairVote, it passed in Portland, Ore.; Multnomah County, Ore.; Evanston, Ill.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Ojai, Calif., and Portland, Maine. It also appeared to be on a path to passage in Seattle, but was trailing in San Juan County, Wash.

In Maine the process is not used to elect state officeholders because of a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling.

Alaska’s first test drive of ranked-choice voting in August produced a surprising result when U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (D) won a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Don Young (R). Peltola ultimately beat out Sarah Palin, the former governor and vice presidential nominee, after two rounds of counting.

In Nevada, the idea of tossing out the state’s party-based primary system and moving to ranked-choice voting rankled both Democrats and Republicans, as the Nevada Independent reported. Some viewed it as an attack on the parties.

Among its opponents was Gov. Steve Sisolak (D), who told the Nevada Independent in May that Ballot Measure 3 was “a rushed constitutional change that would make our system more confusing, error-prone and exclusionary.”

A small group of out-of-state donors largely bankrolled the Yes on Question 3 campaign. It included Chicago businesswoman Katherine Gehl, who founded the Institute for Political Innovation and is leading a push for final-five voting.

“Five creates space for three more than the current system and, as a result lowers the ‘barriers to entry,” Gehl’s organization states on its website.

David Damore, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he expects ranked-choice voting proponents to face a tougher opposition campaign in 2024.

“You’re going to see organized interests coming out against it,” Damore said.

The earliest ranked-choice voting could be implemented in Nevada is in 2026.