PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Voters must navigate two Nevada laws designed to exclude some voters.

A little known 1997 Nevada law bars some Nevadans from voting on who their “elected” representatives are. It has come back to public attention because a recent change in the law has made those races more frequent, with the result that more races this year will be settled without most voters getting a chance to cast their ballots.

The original measure was sponsored by Sen. Dean Rhoads, an Elko County Republican who represented several small counties. Before his law was enacted, when only three or more members of one party filed for an office, and no members of other parties, they faced off in the primary, and the winner was elected without ever facing a general election electorate. If only two members of the same party ran, they went into the general election without a primary election.

Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano last week wrote that Rhoads “got tired of beating the same opponent twice each cycle. Only Republicans usually file in Elko County where Democrats are shot on sight. Rhoads got the law changed so single-party elections could be settled in primaries.”

Using state law to solve one’s personal political problems was not original, but was nevertheless still relatively unusual, yet the ploy attracted almost no news coverage.

Rhoads’ bill, Senate Bill 10 of the 1997 Nevada Legislature, provided that if only members of one party ran for an office, one of them could be elected in the primary and the race settled without further action. Members of the other party, plus voters registered as non-partisans or third party members, would not be allowed to vote in that race.

The matter first came into play in a 1998 Washoe Assembly race in which Republicans Dawn Gibbons, Patty Cafferata and Horace Lucido faced each other, with Gibbons emerging the winner by a narrow margin. As a result, Gibbons was elected in that primary, and Democrats, third party members and non-partisans were excluded from voting in the race.

In a Clark County race in 2000, Sen. Joe Neal won a Democratic primary against two other Democrats and was elected. Republicans, third party members, and nonpartisans were not permitted to vote in the race.

Gibbons then introduced a 1999 bill, Assembly Bill 40, to repeal Rhoads’ law. Cafferata, her principal competitor in the race, twice journeyed to Carson City to join Gibbons in testifying for repeal. Also testifying for repeal were James Hulse of Common Cause, a citizen lobby group, and Lynn Chapman and Janine Hansen of Nevada Eagle Forum, a conservative organization.

The Gibbons bill passed the Assembly but was blocked in the Senate. In the hearing in the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Hulse’s testimony was characterized by the minutes this way:

“He continued by commending the eloquence of Ms. Cafferata and Assemblywoman Gibbons. He believes that the Legislature made a mistake in changing the law during the last session to enable the kind of race that occurred here. Not only was Ms. Cafferata denied the opportunity to carry her campaign forward, but also a very substantial number of voters were disenfranchised. The dialogue that is normally expected and entitled to in a political election was cut short. Therefore, for the reasons put forward, this bill should be passed.”

The minutes then continue:

“Senator [William] Raggio interjected that Mr. Hulse’s language troubled him. The act of the Legislature last session did not disenfranchise anyone. These are partisan races, particularly in the Legislature. The Democrats could have put a candidate forward, so they were not disenfranchised, and had the Democrats done so, this situation would not have developed. In a partisan race, the primary election is the method by which that party nominates its candidate for that office. Therefore, Senator Raggio stated, he would take exception to anyone saying that the legislative act in changing the law disenfranchised anyone.”

Raggio was essentially holding members of a party hostage to its organization and its recruiting. But many people who register with a political party do not consider that party “their” party. They register with it in order to be able to vote on more offices in primary elections. True party loyalty is rare. The notion that everyday voters must lose their right to vote because of what a private political organization does is a fairly novel one.

The Senate committee approved the repeal bill and gave it a “do pass” recommendation to the full house. But once the bill arrived in the Senate, it was set aside with a technical maneuver so no senator would have to vote on it. In effect, it was killed without a vote.

At the 2015 Nevada Legislature, S.B. 499 was enacted, and it extended the practice created by Rhoads’ law to races in which only two members of the same party file. Now, not just races in which three or more candidates of one party run will result in most voters being shut out. The same thing now happens when only two candidates of one party run. As a result, there are more races falling under the law, and thus fewer voters who will get to vote for all their representatives.

No one was brave enough to sponsor the bill, so it was introduced by the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections. But Sen. James Settelmeyer spoke for the bill in hearings:

“Senate Bill 499 came from my constituents who said they want to weigh in on the primary process. They do not like that they do not have the ability to vote. This concept is to allow everyone to vote in the primary. … It is good to give people choices. This is a concept of a modified open primary. It would help everyone engage in the electoral process and also resolve some of the state ballot access issues. This is a discussion point to open up the primary for everyone rather than making it completely party-oriented.”

As finally amended and enacted, the measure was entirely party-oriented.

Republican Settelmeyer hails from a lopsidedly Republican district.

Every member of the Senate and 27 out of 42 in the Assembly voted for it. Democrats have learned there is something for them in shutting people out of the process.

The two laws serve a party purpose in districts that lopsidedly favor one party, and legislators can enhance its reach with redistricting that creates more one-party districts, which may serve the parties—while undercutting voters by reducing competitive races.

At least five races representing about 140,000 voters fall into this category this year—Senate district 4 (all Democratic candidates), Assembly District 13, 19, and 26 (all Republican candidates), and Washoe County commission district 4 (all Republican).

So voters may wish to play their party registration carefully this year.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...