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Nevada Ballot Questions Aim To Amend State Constitution

A man sitting behind his computer waves to someone off camera. He is wearing a mask that says, “Vote.”
Trevor Bexon
Poll worker at the Downtown Reno Library, which is serving as an early voting site, in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Nevadans will get to vote on five ballot initiatives this election, ranging from same-sex marriages to renewable energy and voting rights, which all aim to change the state’s constitution. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck talked to Sondra Cosgrove, the president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Nevada, to break down the questions you can expect on your ballot.

Lucia Starbuck: The first ballot question aims to remove the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution. Can you break down what the Board of Regents does and what this will change if the measure passes?

Sondra Cosgrove: The Board of Regents are in charge of governance of our higher education system. I’m a professor at the College of Southern Nevada. So, I’ve interfaced with the Regents quite a bit. If we want to do a new degree program, if we want to build a new building, we go to the Board of Regents, and then they're the ones that need to make sure we’re following all the laws and we’re following code.

They also make sure that when we get to the legislative session, that they take all the different budget requests from all the separate institutions and they pull them all together to make sure that we're all kind of rowing in the same direction, that we're not inadvertently kind of stepping on each other.

Ballot Question 1 is a constitutional amendment and we have a rule called the single-subject rule, and what it’s designed to do is to make sure that we’re only asking voters one question at a time. We couldn’t say, ‘Would you like to remove the Regents from the constitution, and would you like to make sure they’re appointed?’ You’re only allowed to ask voters one question at a time.

The other thing that the single-subject rule does is it says we can't put administrative details into our constitution. So, the ‘how’part of how we're going to do things, can't be in the ballot question. That has to actually come in the next legislative session. But, that means we all just need to make sure we engage in the next legislative session and that we have our voices heard when they do implementing legislation.

Click here to learn more about Ballot Question 1.

Starbuck: The second ballot question proposes to remove language from the Nevada Constitution that bans same-sex marriages. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages nationwide. Why is this question on the ballot?

Cosgrove: When you have the Supreme Court do a ruling like they did in 2015, it ends up being called case law. So, what it says is, this is the overriding law everyone has to follow now. If you have language in your constitution or in statutes that go against what the Supreme Court ruled, it doesn’t remove it, it just makes it what is called moot, that it’s not in effect anymore, but the language is still there.

The proponents of Ballot Question 2 say, but what if the Supreme Court in the near future overturns the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage? That language in our constitution would all of a sudden be active again. They said, let’s just align our constitution with the 2015 Supreme Court ruling and take that language out.

Starbuck: Ballot Question 3 would make changes to the Nevada Board of Pardons. The board has the ability to reduce sentences and grant pardons to people convicted of crimes. What current issues are the board facing and what would this initiative change?

Cosgrove: The Board of Pardons is [made up of] the governor, the attorney general and all the justices on the Nevada Supreme Court. Right now, the board meets twice a year and the governor can veto any decision. Let’s say all the rest of the commissioners vote ‘yes,’ the governor could vote ‘no’, and there’s some concern that there’s a backlog of cases that have not been heard. There’s some concern that you would have a governor being able to use his or her political position to deny someone a pardon. So, all they’re saying is, they want it in the constitution that the board must meet at least four times a year, so quarterly, and that the governor doesn’t have that veto.

There’s also a lot of people who support the Second Amendment who are saying there’s a lot of people in that queue waiting to get a pardon who, maybe 15 or 20 years ago committed a domestic violence offense, and in the state of Nevada, even if you have a misdemeanor domestic violence offense, you lose your right to own a gun — forever. So, you’ve got some people who are saying, you know, this was 20 years ago, I didn’t reoffend, I went to counseling, I’d like to go hunting with my grandson. Can I please have my Second Amendment rights back?

Starbuck: The fourth ballot initiative would also make some changes to the Nevada Constitution surrounding voting rights. What protections would Nevadans get if this bill passes?

Cosgrove: What the sponsor is asking is, should we take our voting rights protections that we have written into law, these are current laws in the state of Nevada, should we take them and move them from statute over into the constitution so that they would be constitutional rights?

It’s interesting because right now, not in Nevada, but in other states, this is what’s playing out in the courts. People are saying, ‘I should be able to vote at home because there’s a pandemic,’ and the courts are having to say, well, do people actually have that right based on the U.S. Constitution? There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says pandemic or emergency. What the sponsor of Ballot Question 4 is saying is if we put those rights in the Nevada Constitution, at least you and I could go into state court and say, ‘We have a constitutional right to vote or a constitutional right to access the ballot, based on the Nevada Constitution.’

Starbuck: There isn't a fifth ballot question, but there is a sixth. This one requires utility suppliers to obtain a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources, right?

Cosgrove: It’s 50% by 2030. It was Ballot Question 6 in 2018, and it got, like, 64% of the vote, so it obviously got a ‘yes’ vote. So, it needed to be voted on a second time before it can go into the Nevada Constitution.

This is the other weird thing about Ballot Question 6 -- in the last legislative session, one of our state senators actually ran the language from the amendment as a bill. It passed unanimously in both houses of our legislature and the governor signed it. So, technically Ballot Question 6 is the law in the state of Nevada. What the proponents are saying is, but if it’s a law, that means the next legislature could get rid of it.

Starbuck: For some of the ballot questions that will change the constitution, will that just happen immediately after they pass?

Cosgrove: Every single question we’re voting on this time is at the very last stage of the amending process. So if they pass, the Nevada constitution is amended.

Cosgrove held a presentation on the ballot initiatives, which you can find on the League of Women Voters of Northern Nevada’s Facebook page.

As a note of disclosure, the Board of Regents to the Nevada System of Higher Education owns the license to this station.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

For information on races, visit our KUNR 2020 Voter Guide.

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Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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