by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
Amid a political climate where almost every issue seems to be distilled to Democrats versus Republicans, or conservative versus liberal, Question 3 has emerged to create strange bedfellows in Nevada.
Prominent Democrats, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and prominent Republicans, including Rep. Mark Amodei, have both been quoted criticizing the proposed election reform, which would establish a new election process that includes nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting. The editorial boards of the Las Vegas Review Journal and Las Vegas Sun – typically on opposite ideological aisles – have both urged their readers to vote “no.” Battle Born Progress, a prominent group which leans left, agrees with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a think tank that leans right, that Question 3 is bad for Nevada.
What all that tells voters about Question 3 is up to interpretation. Opponents see proof that the proposal isn’t right for Nevada. Proponents see it as encouragement – the two-party establishment showing fear of upsetting the apple cart.
“The opposition from the establishment isn’t surprising,” says Cesar Marquez, a coalition member of Nevada Voters First, the political action committee established to pass Question 3. “Your average person has been very positive about it. Because they get it. They get how our system is rigged not in our favor.”
UNLV political science professor David Damore agrees that opposition to the question isn’t surprising, but he adds there are nuances to different groups’ positions.
“Everybody sort of realizes that partisan primaries are bad,” he says, “but is this the appropriate solution? That’s where people run into it.”
Question 3 describes itself as a system that combines open primaries and ranked choice voting. All candidates would appear on the primary ballot for all voters to decide, then the top five finishers would appear on the general election ballot.
On that general election ballot, voters would rank the candidates – first choice, second, third, etc. If one candidate receives more than 50% of first-choice votes, they are declared the winner. If not, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to their second-choice candidate. That process is continued until a candidate receives a true majority.
Currently, Nevada has closed primaries, wherein voters cannot participate unless they openly declare for a party.
Question 3 is proposing a change to the Nevada Constitution, which means the ballot measure will need to be approved by voters twice – first this year, then again in 2024.
If successful, it would be used for the first time in the 2026 election cycle.
$17 million in support
Question 3 has notable bipartisan opposition. What it also has: a lot of money.
The Nevada Voters First, the political action committee set up to pass Question 3, brought in more than $19 million this year, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state earlier this month. Almost all of it – $17 million – was contributed in September alone.
Most of that financial support has come from mega-rich out-of-state donors, who contributed on behalf of nonpartisan groups focused on pro-democracy and election reform efforts across the country. Those groups include the Final Five Fund, Action Now Inc, Unite America and Represent US.
Katherine Gehl, who founded the nonpartisan Institute for Political Innovation, which helped qualify Question 3 for the ballot, contributed $5 million. Gehl, whose family’s food manufacturing business made her a millionaire, has described herself as “politically homeless.”
Kenneth Griffin, a hedge fund CEO billionaire, gave $3 million. Griffin is a top GOP mega donor whose combined contributions to U.S. Senate and House races this midterm election cycle have only been surpassed by Democratic billionaire George Soros and Republican billionaire Richard Uihlein.
Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of conservative billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, gave $2.5 million. Murdoch has described herself as a “radical centrist” and was a major donor to Democrats in the 2020 election cycle.
John Sobrato, a billionaire real estate developer, gave $1 million. Sobrato has given primarily to Democratic candidates, including donating $4,000 to Nevada’s Cortez Masto this year..
In-state contributors gave far less to Question 3 – and they gave it earlier in the campaign. Wynn Resorts gave Nevada Voters First $250,000 in September. (Former Wynn CEO Matthew Maddox and his wife, Katherine, each gave $5,000 in March.) The Clark County Education Association’s PAC, Strategic Horizons, gave $250,000 in February. The Nevada Association of Realtors gave $250,000 in March.
Opponents of Question 3, such as Battle Born Progress, which held an event Monday centered on the issue, argue the proposal is “the pet project of a handful of billionaires from across the country who think they know better than Nevadans how our elections should be run.”
Marquez, the Nevada Voters First coalition member, pushes back against that characterization. He says he and fellow coalition members – like Doug Goodman, who founded Nevadans for Election Reform, and Sondra Cosgrove, who founded Vote Nevada – have been pushing for election reform such as this for years.
Goodman attempted to get a different ranked choice voting system proposal on the ballot almost a decade ago but failed to raise the funds needed, according to his website. Cosgrove attempted to get an anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative on the ballot two years ago but faltered over legal challenges and pandemic restrictions.
Marquez says it was Nevadans that sought out Gehl and her Institute for Political Innovation for assistance – not the other way around.
“We’re trying to win,” he says flatly. “We knew we needed to work with organizations that aligned with that. … We knew we needed help.”
That $19 million raised for Question 3 is buying at least $7.4 million in broadcast ads. The campaign’s advertisement, which features a veteran, speaks of voter disenfranchisement of the nearly one-third of Nevadans who are registered nonpartisans and unable to vote in primaries without registering with a party.
The amount raised in Nevada is nearly double what was raised in Massachusetts when ranked choice voting appeared on their ballot in 2020. That effort, which was financially backed by many of the same megarich donors, failed with 54.8% of voters rejecting it.
In 2020, Alaska voters narrowly approved (50.5%) an open primary/ranked choice voting ballot measure, which is now in place and being used. That effort, also backed by Gehl’s organization, saw only a fraction of the amount of money being seen here in Nevada.
Damore, the UNLV professor, says it’s difficult to suss out which party or types of candidates would benefit from the implementation of the proposed election system here in Nevada. Much would depend on how candidates, campaigns and donors adapt to the new format.
“If parties don’t feel like they can control their candidate. You could wind up with some weird outcomes,” he added.
Proponents of open primaries and ranked choice say it forces candidates to be collegial with one another and emphasizes bipartisanship.
Marquez says moderate Republicans he’s spoken to see it as a way to combat far-right “MAGA candidates.” He points out that Democrats have backed open primaries and ranked choice in other states.
The Independent American Party, which 4.32% of Nevada voters are registered to, opposes the measure. IAP state chair Janine Hansen told the Elko Daily Free Press that the ballot measure would “devastate minor party candidates” and eliminate them from the general election process.
“If Question 3 passes, no party will have the opportunity in a party primary to determine who will represent them and promote their values,” she told the rural paper. “This undermines our democratic republic which flourishes in a system where party advocates promote the free flow of ideas.”
The Libertarian Party of Nevada, which has less than 1% of registered voters, declined to weigh in on the ballot question, according to its endorsement page.
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.
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