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Nevada ballot may see open primary, ranked voting initiative

June 30, 2022 GMT

LAS VEGAS (AP) — An initiative offering Nevada voters open party primaries and ranked-choice voting appears headed for the November ballot, while the state Supreme Court turned down a case that could have put a constitutional amendment about a school vouchers program before the voters.

In a third election-related ruling — all issued Tuesday — the state high court upheld a Nevada judge’s decision allowing a Las Vegas-area teachers union that qualified two tax-raising initiatives for a statewide vote to withdraw them from the 2022 ballot.

In that case, involving measures backed by Nevadans for Fair Gaming Taxes and the political group Fund Our Schools PAC, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske had refused to remove the measures. Cegavske, a Republican, oversees elections in Nevada.

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The union sought to increase state sales and casino taxes to fund education, but changed course after a deal with the Legislature last year increased school funding using mining tax revenues. Lawmakers feared a vote on the initiatives could affect midterm elections by raising voter concerns about education and taxes.

The trio of rulings, each by a court majority, just ahead of a deadline for groups to submit the nearly 141,000 signatures to qualify initiatives for this year’s statewide ballot.

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Nevada Voters First, backers of the voting overhaul proposal, issued a statement Wednesday saying it turned in more than 266,000 signatures for verification.

It said its constitutional amendment would give voters options to choose elected officials “based on leadership skills and policy decisions rather than simply choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils.’”

If a majority of voters approve in 2022 and 2024, primaries would be open to all voters regardless of party registration and ballots would rank candidates by preference.

Proponents note that nonpartisan voters, now nearly 29% of the state’s 1.8 million active voters, are unable to vote for partisan offices in primary elections. Democrats make up 33% of voters in Nevada, and Republicans almost 30%.

The measure is opposed by top Nevada Democrats including Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto. They’ve argued ranked voting is confusing and time-consuming and would lead to votes being thrown out.

An attorney for Education Freedom for Nevada, the group backing the education voucher initiative with the advocacy group Power2Parent, said the goal was to let funding “follow the student,” whether they attend public or private schools.

But he faced tough questions during oral arguments less than two weeks ago from justices focused on whether the proposal violated state law against creating a law and then requiring the state Legislature to spend money to enact it — a so-called “unfunded mandate.”

By a 5-2 margin, the court upheld a state court judge’s ruling that the measure used what the judge called “sleight of hand” to hide what he termed the “enormous” effect the program would have on the state budget.

An attorney for initiative opponents headed by the philanthropic Rogers Foundation, which backs a policy organization called Educate Nevada Now, noted there were more than 493,000 public school students in Nevada in 2019 and the state spends an average of $10,000 per year per child.

He suggested the amount at stake could rival Nevada’s overall general fund budget, currently about $4.6 billion.