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October 21, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Where are all the challengers for the Nevada Supreme Court?

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And there it is, my sample ballot for the general election listing all the choices. What’s notable are the choices for the Nevada Supreme Court, or, I should say, the absence of choice.

For the three seats on the Nevada Supreme Court on the ballot, I can vote for the three incumbents or “None of These Candidates.” Either way, these three are elected. Or is that anointed?

All three seats have incumbents running for re-election, and they attracted no competition. In 2010, two justices faced no competition except for “None of These Candidates,” which Nevada law allows in statewide races. That’s five of the seven justices, a clear majority of the high court. To take nothing away from the justices, it’s a quandary that no one decided to challenge them.

The result is that the often-uttered phrase “My vote doesn’t matter,” unfortunately, literally applies here.

Nevada’s judiciary, one-third of the state’s democratically elected government, is led by the Supreme Court. The court is crucial to interpreting the Nevada Constitution and responsible for literally thousands of cases, yet the court is essentially without democratic challenge for another general election cycle.

Some people think that judges should be appointed, but I firmly believe in the election process. Strong campaigns and competitive races make for a better democracy.

As a political science instructor, I often would explain to my students the foundations of a vibrant democracy, of which separation of powers and free, fair and frequent elections are fundamental.

In several Middle Eastern countries now experiencing limited democracy, citizens’ fingers are marked with dye to protect against multiple votes. In Russia, a self-proclaimed democracy, officials installed closed-circuit TV in polling locations to protect against voter fraud.

Elsewhere, however, authoritarian rulers would openly mock the democratic process. There are countries in which the election has just one candidate or two choices — yes or no — and the voter was required to sign the ballot and place it in a glass container for all to see.

While our democracy is vibrant in many ways, it also loses credibility in its governance when there is no choice in particular elections due to systematic barriers, apathy or even political kingmakers.

Elections are the formal culminations of months-long campaigns that result in the selection of candidates and policies, except in the unique case of None of These Candidates.

There likely are multiple reasons for those voters who vote for None. Unfortunately, None doesn’t translate into a policy or set of beliefs championed by a candidate or elected official. It is an artificial person that has no party affiliation.

Instead, it is the equivalent of a poll marking a moment of time, a number or percentage marking dissatisfaction, not affirmation, with a candidate. In fact, should None win the vote, there is no trigger for a new election. Uniquely, the second-highest vote-getter would take office. A new election would bring another set of tribulations — the possibility of unending elections and major costs.

For the Nevada Supreme Court, both the frequency of the election and the choice of candidate or equivalent yes or no seems to have lost its democratic significance. It is, for all practical purposes, as if the justices have been — and as many argue for — appointed. None should be replaced with more of the above. Unless of course, if there are no systematic barriers, apathy or political kingmakers, and the Nevada Supreme Court justices are simply that exceptional.

Martin Dean Dupalo is executive director of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

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  1. Justices "running" for reelection with no opposition has been going on here for a long time. The usual apathy remains this cycle. You can't force someone to oppose the incumbent, so I guess the answer would be nobody thinks the incumbent can be unseated. You do have the choice of leaving that part of the ballot blank, but without opposition, the results would be the same; incumbent reelected.