The Nevada top-five ranked choice voting initiative, Nevada Question 3 on the Nov. 2022 ballot, would change state primary elections from a closed system in which only party members are allowed to vote in their respective parties’ primaries to a top-two open primary where anyone can vote for any candidate of any party.
The initiative would also change the process by which candidates from each primary advance to the general election. Currently, the candidates receiving the most votes in each party’s primary advance to the general election—one candidate represents each party. Under the initiative, the top five candidates overall would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
The initiative would also establish rank-choice voting in the primaries and the general election. Under rank-choice voting, voters rank their preferred candidates rather than selecting one candidate to receive their votes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then redistributed based on voters’ ranked preferences. This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.
Proponents’ Arguments For
Proponents of Nevada Question 3 argue that voters should have more choices and that non-party-affiliated voters should have a voice in the primary process. As noted by the Institute for Political Innovation, more than 35 percent of Nevada voters are unable to vote in a primary because they are registered as independent or non-partisan, and “many more [feel] under-represented by their respective party.”
Supporters of open primary systems generally argue that closed primaries result in polarization because, in closed primaries, candidates are competing for the vote of a partisan minority. Closed primary systems exclude voters who are not members of a major political party from participating in taxpayer-funded elections. The outcome of primary elections is therefore decided by a relatively small group of partisan voters. They suggest that open primaries could result in moderation because it would require candidates to appeal to all voters, not just members of their own political party.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that it allows voters to choose their most-preferred candidate first without worrying about wasted votes or spoiler effects. This would lend voters more choice. Supporters of the top-five component of the initiative further argue that allowing the top-five candidates to proceed to the general election would provide voters with more choice. According to Sondra Cosgrove, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, “We don’t want just two people moving forward from the primary to the general election. We want five people, because oftentimes when you look at the people who move forward, it’s just the people with the most money.”
Opponent’s Arguments Against
Opponents of Nevada Question 3 argue that it would make voting too complicated and that voters could be confused by the new system. According to Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of Silver State Voices:
Ranked choice voting makes casting a ballot more time-consuming, more complicated, and more confusing for voters … It will inevitably lead to increased errors. Ranked choice vote ballots are significantly more likely to be thrown out and uncounted because of those voters’ mistakes, ultimately disenfranchising more voters because of an overly complex and burdensome process.
Opponents of Nevada Question 3 and open primaries also argue that political parties are private organizations and should be allowed to determine the process by which their candidates are selected. Building a coalition of like-minded voters and nominating candidates that align with their preferences are among the core functions of political parties. Partisan primaries are an important part of that function. In their view, open primaries would weaken the ability of parties to nominate the candidates that most clearly align with their members’ beliefs. Moreover, they argue that allowing members of the opposing party to participate in their primary process could create opportunities for sabotage.
While expanding voter choice and allowing non-partisan voters to play a more significant role in elections are laudable goals, it is not clear that open primaries and top-five election processes are a good means for achieving those goals. Ranked choice voting, on the other hand, is an effective strategy for offering voters more choices. Because ranked-choice voting alleviates concerns about wasted votes and spoiler effects, such ballots also lend more opportunity for minor party candidates.
Regarding open primaries, political parties are fundamentally private organizations with the right to set their own rules for nominating candidates. To infringe on that right is to violate the freedom of association. No matter how large or powerful the two major parties may be, the government has no role in determining the process for their primary elections. That limitation does not prevent non-partisan voters from vocalizing their dissatisfaction with major-party nominees. Better alternatives for including non-partisan voters in the electoral process include allowing minor-party candidates to participate in debates and redrawing gerrymandered districts.
Overall, the Nevada Top-Five Ranked Choice Voting Initiative has some laudable goals and contains some ideas worthy of consideration. However, mandating open primaries and a top-five system both conflict with other long-established goals of primary elections.