An election reform road map that both parties should embrace

By Daniel H. Stewart

Upon taking the Speaker’s gavel for the second time, Speaker Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues sent a strong message with their first bill: H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” If enacted, H.R. 1 would, among other things, add new voters to the rolls, keep current voters on the rolls and give all voters more opportunities to cast a ballot. The bill restores teeth recently extracted from the federal Voting Rights Act, adds new security protections for election infrastructure, and mandates independent redistricting commissions in each state. Simply put, H.R. 1 is the most significant democracy-enhancing proposal since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, H.R. 1 is unlikely to go very far. Gone are the not-that-long-ago days of bipartisan consensus on voting-rights legislation.

Regardless of what happens to H.R. 1, Nevada’s lawmakers can still pass a similar version of the bill on a statewide level. With Democrats controlling both the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, many hands are ready to pick up Speaker Pelosi’s baton. Nevada voters have already enacted automatic, DMV voter registration, and Gov. Steve Sisolak has promised same-day registration and expanded early voting. More is almost certainly on the way, as Speaker Jason Frierson and Attorney General Aaron Ford have championed voting rights for years. In 2017, they joined Gov. Brian Sandoval to improving Nevada law restoring voting rights for former felons.

I applaud these efforts. Getting more Nevadans to the polls and improving representative democracy are goals we should all support. That said, disrupting our election rules can be uncomfortable. And H.R. 1 has components that could vex both Nevada Democrats and Nevada Republicans.

As a Republican election attorney who has supported, worked for and represented many of Nevada’s elected Republicans, I say relax. History shows that massive expansions of voting rights have little to no long-term effect on the enduring permanency of the two-party system. There is no such thing as too much legal voting.

Republicans do worry about ballot security and voter fraud. Fortunately, evidence shows that such fears are overblown, and the risk of blocking legitimate voters exercising fundamental rights is simply too great to let worry outweigh hope.

Furthermore, Republicans abandon core principles when we push back against increased voting. We usually recoil from elitism. Common sense, personal responsibility and self-reliance make up much of the (stated) creed of conservatism. We prefer governing ourselves.

When it comes to elections, though, Republicans often lock arms with snobbery: only the sagest Nevadans should vote. The rabble is just too susceptible to false promises, glitzy packaging and instant gratification to pick our leaders.

Sure, the tyranny of the majority is real, and why we need anti-majoritarian state and federal constitutions. Nevertheless, it is too easy to mistake the wisdom of crowds for mass despotism.

Additionally, conservatives also believe in freedom and free markets. They need to extend that faith to the marketplace of ideas and its ability to sift good policy from bad. This market needs consumer participation. More voters means more consumers and better input. Granted, markets are imperfect, but Republicans should focus on selling their message, not tinkering with the market.

Some conservatives may be content to sound the warning voice from the wilderness instead. But that means actually accepting fate and living in the political wilderness. You don’t get to reign as king and rule in exile at the same time.

To my Democratic friends: please follow Speaker Pelosi’s example and create an independent redistricting commission for 2021’s redistricting cycle.

It might be easy to reject the idea, and argue that all election rules, redistricting included, are the victor’s spoils. Democrats will control lawmaking in 2021. Why should they do anything but gerrymander? Fair question. But sometimes the moral high ground looms above the throne.

If all that really matters is acquiring power by whatever means necessary, then we should stop pretending otherwise. Setting tomorrow’s rules only to benefit yesterday’s winners is as understandable as it is undesirable. There are no saints and sinners in a war like this.

The same evil tempts the vote suppressor and the gerrymanderer alike. It is no surprise that election riggers arm themselves with both weapons. Voter ID, whites-only primaries, poll taxes, gerrymandering, and more all distort democracy, such that government chooses its voters; voters don’t choose their government. In her rebuttal to the recent State of the Union, Stacy Abrams said it well: “The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders – not where politicians pick their voters.”

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Utah—states governed by both political parties—have some form of independent redistricting commissions. Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon are the only western states without one. It is time Nevada joined the growing (and incredibly popular) trend toward independent redistricting.

Finally, one more suggestion not in H.R. 1, and one that Republicans and Democrats may dislike equally: major-party primaries in which non-partisans and third parties participate. 

I understand the objections. If you are not Catholic, you don’t pick the Pope. If unaffiliated voters want to select a party’s candidates, they should join the party. Such thinking, however appealing and constitutionally correct, ignores reality.

Nearly a third of Nevada’s registered voters are neither Republicans nor Democrats. Nevadans are increasingly uninterested in sporting the major-party label. The result: hundreds of thousands of Nevada voters sit on the sidelines during critical political moments. Our major parties and our elected leaders should come together and find a way to fix this problem.

In sum, few changes hurt more than those disturbing the path to power. Republicans and Democrats should consider embracing the reforms listed above and more. Doing so will ensure that Nevada’s government looks like, speaks like and thinks like Nevada’s many people. Speaker Pelosi has kicked off the conversation; we should follow her lead.

Daniel H. Stewart is a partner with Hutchison & Steffen, where he leads the firm’s Election, Campaign and Political Law practice. For the last 10 years, Daniel has practiced law in both the public and private sectors, representing elected officials, candidates, campaigns, social welfare organizations, and other political and policy-focused clients