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California and the West

On Hot-Button Political Issues, Nevada Is a Johnny-Come-Lately

Elections: Transient populace and libertarian bent contribute to voter apathy, experts say. Marijuana and same-sex marriage measures surface years later than in other states.


LAS VEGAS — The Silver State, always something of an aberration--look no further than wholesale gambling and legalized brothels--is just as contrary when it comes to politics.

This is a place where issues tend to surface later than they do in other states--in part because Nevadans, for all their reputation as feisty independents, don't care much about politics, experts say.

Witness two issues, long familiar in California and elsewhere, appearing on next month's statewide ballot as constitutional amendments. One, which voters gave preliminary approval to two years ago, would legalize medicinal marijuana. The other would expand an existing state law that bans same-sex marriages by denying recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages as well.

For myriad reasons, those issues have surfaced late in Nevada. Among them, according to various experts: Burgeoning Nevada is a transient and politically apathetic state, lacking the kind of fire in its belly that stokes special-interest groups in other states.

That contrast startled Billy Vassiliadis, a Las Vegas-based political consultant who participated in a California campaign two years ago.

"I couldn't believe the political activity I found in California--the number of people who get involved and the number of special-interest groups with paid executive directors and paid staffs," Vassiliadis said.

"Here in Nevada, we don't initiate a lot of issues," he said. "We usually are me-tooers. We come along afterward."

A UNLV political scientist, Michael Bowers, noted that in Nevada--historically a state with a libertarian bent--only half the state's voting-age population is registered to vote, and only 49% of those registered cast ballots in the 1998 general election.

In contrast, 71% of California's voting-age population is registered--and 58% of those actually voted in 1998.

"Nevadans are apolitical," he said. "Nevada has very rudimentary political organizations, and you don't have groups here positioned to create initiatives."

Like its economy, Nevada's major political forces are rooted in its casino industry, along with mining, labor unions and chambers of commerce. More finely focused interest groups gather little momentum here.

Adding to Nevada's political lethargy is the difficulty in amending the state's constitution. To put a constitutional ballot measure before the voters, proponents must gather the signatures of 10% of the number of people who voted in the previous general election.

Furthermore, that minimum must come from 13 of the state's 17 counties--meaning petition gatherers can't just canvass Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City, but must solicit signatures by standing at the doors of small churches and mom-and-pop grocery stores in rural Nevada as well.

If the measure qualifies and is approved by voters, it must then be voted upon again two years later, a kind of "Are you sure?" reaffirmation of the initial vote.

The constitutional amendment legalizing use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, for example, was approved by 59% of the voters in 1998 and is on the ballot Nov. 7 for confirmation.

Nevada is the only state in the nation that requires two votes to change its constitution. "That system was set up 100 years ago with the argument that it shouldn't be easy to change the constitution," said Dean Heller, Nevada's secretary of state.

Not only is it difficult to put constitutional measures on the ballot, there's little compelling reason to do so, speculates Dan Hart, a local political consultant who has worked on several national campaigns and characterizes Nevada's voters as tough nuts to crack.

It is hard to generate much excitement among them, he said, "because there's a complacency here. People believe everything's going OK. Everyone's got a job and the housing market is booming."

Said Hart: "Nevadans are libertarian more than anything else. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Another obstacle facing political organizers is finding political support amid high voter turnover.

With tens of thousands of new voters migrating to Nevada each year, "we don't know who the voting universe is," said Los Angeles-based political consultant Bill Carrick. "There's an uncertainty among people who shop initiatives around the nation to know who the Nevada voters are. . . . It's a volatile, ever-changing electorate."

Once California voters speak on a measure, that momentum typically carries into Nevada--where expatriate Californians make up a third of the population. Such is the case with the marijuana and marriage issues, where Nevada voters are expected to follow suit in support of each.

The medicinal use of marijuana was embraced by Nevada voters in 1998 after it won approval in California in 1996. "Our measure here was a stepchild of California's," said Hart, the consultant who helped run the campaign two years ago in Nevada. The measure was loosely opposed by law enforcement that year, but has attracted little attention this time around.

The ban on same-sex marriages in Nevada follows a similar vote in California earlier this year. At least 33 states have already adopted such measures in the last decade.

Paul Brown, the Southern Nevada director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance, said his organization has a hard time marshaling volunteers to help defeat the measure.

"Not only are some 5,000 people moving here every month--but 2,000 to 3,000 are leaving, too," he said.

In contrast, support for the marriage proposal is entrenched among Nevada's old-timers, especially the influential Mormon Church community, whose members are fervently campaigning in support of the measure.

While Brown concedes that the marriage issue will pass in November, he holds out long-term hope--because the issue will return to the voters in 2002 for affirmation.

"We'll have two more years to educate people," he said.

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