Nevada’s Top Five Ranked Choice Voting Initiative, on the ballot this fall, would do far more than require voters to order myriad candidates by preference. It would also dramatically alter how our primaries are run.
Ballot Question 3 seeks to replace Nevada’s traditional primary system with California-style “jungle” primaries. This is very different from the present Silver State setup, where only registered voters are allowed to cast ballots in their party’s primary.
The initiative would require voters to select from all candidates in a single primary, regardless of party affiliation. Democrats could vote for Republicans and Republicans for Democrats.
The ballot initiative would have the top five finishers in the primary advance to the general election.
Under this system, candidates from one political party could sweep the primary and shut out opposing political parties from even appearing on the general election ballot.
That’s what happened two years ago in California, which has all candidates run in a single primary, with the top two advancing to the general election. In a state senate district that runs mostly south and east of Sacramento along the Nevada border, six Republicans and two Democrats vied for the seat.
The district has a plurality of registered Republicans, but because there were so many GOP candidates running, their vote was split many ways. The two Democrats finished first and second, and no Republicans made it to the general election.
Alaska employs a top-four primary system, with all candidates running in a single primary and the first four finishers going on to the general election. This system was used for the first time in 2022 in the primary for the special election to fill Alaska’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The top two Republicans captured a combined 47 percent of votes in the primary, which featured 24 total candidates. Also advancing was a Democrat and an independent.
In the ensuing general election, Republicans captured more than 58 percent of the popular vote, but it was split between the two candidates, and the Democrat took the seat.
California’s jungle primary system is open to “mischievous tactics,” according to Dan Walters of nonprofit news publication CalMatters.
“For instance, operatives of one party sometimes clandestinely recruit multiple candidates in the other party to fragment the vote and help two candidates of the same party finish 1-2 in the primary,” he wrote in 2022. “It’s happened a couple of times.”
Open primaries have also raised questions about First Amendment right to association violations.
California originally passed a proposition allowing open primaries – in which voters could cast ballots for candidates regardless of political affiliation – in 1996.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that system unconstitutional in 2000, stating it violated a political party’s First Amendment right of association by allowing non-party members to interfere with the party’s choice.
As Nevadans have seen this year, our primary system isn’t without its flaws. But essentially hollowing it out and implementing a questionable scheme in its place is hardly the answer.