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Politics: Total Recall

Total Recall
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

With their secrecy-shrouded efforts to recall three lawmakers, are Nevada Republicans out to change the political playbook?

It’s notable, and maybe even understandable, that nowhere in the Nevada Constitution or the Nevada Revised Statutes is there a list of acceptable reasons to recall an elected official.

The Constitution does specify that petitions presented to voters must include a 200-word list of reasons, so voters know what they’re signing. But those reasons could be anything from the righteous to the ridiculous.

And there’s no requirement — before the petitions are actually filed — to make those reasons public. All that’s required is the filing of a recall notice with the signatures of three voters who actually voted in the election in which the recall target was elected. Until the petitions are actually filed, only the organizers and the people they solicit will know why. There’s not even a fee to file a recall against an official.

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This shroud of secrecy and ease of process has attended the filings of three recalls against a trio of state senators, women all, two Democrats and a former-Republican-turned-nonpartisan. Recall organizers have refused to return reporters’ phone calls, and those few officials who have spoken publicly retreat to the same talking point: Recall is a right under the Constitution.

Undoubtedly, but so is marching in a protest with a Nazi flag. It doesn’t mean a person is compelled to do it, or that it’s a good idea.

So, what’s up with the recalls?

First, the targets. State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, is a former grade-school teacher who talks and acts the part. She’s had a history of close elections — she was once deposed by an ambitious Republican by the name of Michael Roberson, before winning her way back to the Senate. Her 2016 election was close: She won by just 469 votes, less than 1 percentage point. And now, a recall committee led by former one-term Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus wants to recall Woodhouse and replace her with her defeated 2016 rival, Carrie Buck. It’s not just undoing an election, it’s literally having a do-over. Ironically, Silberkraus himself was once the target of an abortive recall filed by conservative activist Chuck Muth, who objected to Silberkraus’ vote for the 2015 commerce tax. 

Then there’s state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, who defeated ex-Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in 2016 by just more than 1,000 votes in 2016. Cannizzaro, a Clark County deputy district attorney, is in her first term. A recall committee headed by Claire Roth wants to replace Cannizzaro with attorney April Becker.

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Finally, there’s state Sen. Patty Farley, who was elected in 2014 as a Republican, easily defeating former Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop. But after one session in the GOP, Farley announced she was re-registering as a nonpartisan, and caucused in the 2017 session with Democrats. (On a recent legislative report card issued by the liberal group Battle Born Progress, Farley had a perfect score, something no Republican got.) A recall committee headed by Annalise Castor (and which includes two officials with the conservative Keystone Corporation) wants to replace Farley with Jared Glover.

Of all the recalls, Farley’s is the most understandable, but also the most pointless. Unlike the other two — who got elected as Democrats and voted like Democrats — Farley changed parties, which some voters might view as a recall-worthy betrayal. But Farley has announced she won’t seek re-election, and conservative former state Sen. Elizabeth Helgelien (née Halseth) has said she will seek the seat in 2018. Farley’s district is also the closest in registration: Democrats outnumber Republicans by just more than 1,000 voters there, while Woodhouse enjoys a 4,000-voter advantage and Cannizzaro’s is more than 5,800.

With three recalls in strategically important districts, there’s clearly strategy at work. First, recallers want Democrats to spend money to defend the seats (and here, they’ve succeeded; “decline to sign” campaigns are going on to protect Woodhouse and Cannizzaro). Second, Republicans know the political map in 2018 doesn’t favor them winning in the traditional way — by actually winning the election. Recalls are a way to fight on their own timeline. (Roberson reportedly boasted at Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s annual Basque Fry barbecue in Northern Nevada that the GOP would control the upper house by Christmas.)

And third, the effort may be linked to deep Republican pockets: A lobbyist for a firm that also represents the Las Vegas Sands (headed by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who has indicated his intent to step up efforts to elect Republicans at the state level in 2018) was found by the Nevada Independent website to have supplied at least one of Cannizzaro’s recall backers with talking points justifying the effort.

Notably, Gov. Brian Sandoval has distanced himself from the recall attempts, saying he will not be involved. But two officials with close ties to him are: Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchsion’s law firm is providing legal guidance to the efforts, in the person of former Sandoval general counsel Dan Stewart, who now works for Hutchison’s firm. The firm usually advises controversy-averse business clients, but that hasn’t stopped Stewart from taking the cases.

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Recalls, by law, are difficult affairs: One must collect valid signatures from 25 percent of the voters who actually voted in the election. Finding those voters isn’t hard: A list of who participated in each election is public record. But convincing those voters to abjure their decision at the polls has proven virtually impossible. No state lawmaker has ever been recalled, and the last recall that actually qualified — against former Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross — failed to remove him from office.

And the deadlines are tight: Organizers have 90 days to gather the signatures from the date the petition is filed, deadlines that will come due at the end of this month and the beginning of November.

But the very existence of the recalls is a troubling prospect, the very embodiment of the term “permanent campaign.” Recalls have traditionally been democracy’s last resort, a safety valve for a wayward lawmaker who refuses to quit. The proponents of these recalls are courting a dangerous precedent, strategically attacking vulnerable lawmakers with special elections, fig-leafed with supposed disagreements over specific policy votes. If this were to become a trend, then every state official can look forward to at least one recall filed six months after the election (a constitutional time limit), and every member of the Legislature can expect one on the 11th day of a legislative session (a more aggressive timeline also found in the Constitution). And even after getting elected and surviving a recall, legislators still might not be safe: The law says repeated recalls are allowed, so long as proponents pay the entire cost of the second or subsequent recall election. With the right amount of money, we actually could see the era of the permanent campaign.

And it’s a sure bet that future political cartographers will remember the recalls when drawing new district lines in the 2021 Legislature, knowing that the greater the partisan advantange, the less likely an attempted recall. But the greater the partisan advantage, the less likely a lawmaker is to consider compromise when it comes to policy, an ugly result of partisan gerrymandering.

At least for now, however, Democrats are pledging they will not follow the Republican playbook. State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a candidate for Nevada attorney general in 2018, denounced the recalls as purely partisan and a waste of taxpayer money, and says his caucus will not initiate recalls themselves. He added that while recalls should remain an option for voters, the law should be tweaked to require proponents to state their reasons up front, when papers are first filed. 

And the laws of pragmatism will eventually come into play as well. Whether recalls become commonplace depends a great deal on whether any of the three recalls even qualify, and whether they ultimately succeed at the ballot box. If not, they may lose their potency as a tactic.

Whatever reforms may eventually be enacted, they will not address the underlying issue painted into stark relief by these recalls: There’s really no standard for what should trigger a recall election, and there’s really no penalty (other than public opprobrium) for filing them. It seems some Nevada Republicans have opened the mirror opposite of Pandora’s box, with despair, not hope, at the bottom.