Early or late?
Long or short?
Last month, Washoe Assemblymember Pat Hickey announced a plan for campaign finance changes at next year’s legislature.
Almost unnoticed among the proposed changes was a proposal not directly related to finance disclosure. Hickey said the state’s primary election should be moved back to its traditional place later in the year, though he did not propose a specific date.
“By eliminating those extra months of campaigning, we will help save Nevadans their television mute buttons,” Hickey said. “In shortening the length of the campaign season, we might actually create an electorate that is actively engaged—rather than being turned off and tuned out—by the time November rolls around. By doing so, we might even make progress in restoring a measure of civility to campaigning, or at the very least, shorten the period we ‘make enemies of each other’ in the dog days of summer, before we arrive in Carson City before the cold days of winter needing to make peace.”
But Hickey faces substantial obstacles. The decision on a date is not likely to turn on issues of civility or voter engagement but on administration of elections. If all he needed was the support of his fellow legislators, Hickey would be in fat city. But he must also deal with objections to a later primary from county election officials.
Two years ago, the primary election was Nevada’s centennial primary. The state’s first primary was held on Sept. 6, 1910. That set a pattern. Every election year until 2006, with two exceptions, the primary for state offices was held in the first week of September. (In 1916, the state dropped the primary in favor of nominating conventions. And in 1954, the state primary was held in June as part of an effort to hold a 1956 presidential primary election.)
In 2005, the Nevada Legislature enacted a new primary date because county election officials said they needed the extra time to get ready for get ready for the general election. Some legislators were skeptical. They did not understand why in a computer age county clerks or registrars needed more time instead of less to set up an election. Nevertheless, they went along and the 2006 primary was held on Aug. 15, and in 2008 it was held on Aug. 12.
Many legislators and other elected officials disliked the earlier primary, and in 2009 Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County introduced legislation to move the date back to September. Instead, county officials used the bill to convince the lawmakers to move the date up even more, to June.
When the Raggio measure was being processed in committees, there seemed to be objections to almost any date. September was too late for the counties. July and August were summer months when turnout would be down. June was too early for candidates who had to pay for longer campaigns—and not just legislators felt that way.
The notion that summer months produced low turnout was not well substantiated by Nevada’s limited experience. Raggio aide Isaiah Price supplied figures that tended to go against the grain of assumptions. In August 2006, a nonpresidential year when turnout should have been at rock bottom, it was relatively high:
September 2002 (midterm) 27.72 percent
September 2004 (presidential) 29.16 percent
August 2006 (midterm) 30.06 percent
August 2008 (presidential) 17.97 percent
(These figures are artificially high because they use registered voters as a base number, not eligible voters. The actual turnout was much worse.)
A major sticking point dealt with the possibility of a recount of a primary election race. Depending on what race was involved, a recount—the county officials said—could so consume the time of election officials during the 45 days between the first week of September and the first week of November that it would make it difficult for them to be ready in time for the general election—and probably impossible to mail general election absentee ballots to overseas voters in time.
“The primary election would be September 7,” Clark County voter registrar Larry Lomax told a legislative committee. “We canvass six working days after the election, which amounts to eight days because of the weekends. There is a three-day period where people can ask for a recount. Because of weekends, we are at 13 days after the primary election. Ballots cannot be printed until we have an official election result without a recount. Realistically, ballots cannot be printed until 42 days before the general election, which is within the time line of when the overseas ballots are to be in the mail. The quickest ballots can be printed, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week nonstop, is 11 days. We print 175,000 ballots with 305 versions. The 305 versions must be separated into 1,159 precincts. Our goal is to get the ballots in the mail 30 days before the election. Nevada statute says ballots should be in the mail 40 days prior to the election if possible. I agree that August elections are miserably hot. However, to get the ballots overseas, we need the August primary or an earlier date.”
In the end, the legislators reluctantly rejected July, August and September and went for June. It has proven to be gravy for incumbents, who are better able to endure the costs of a long campaign than challengers.
At the 2013 Nevada Legislature, Hickey will need some answers to the recount and overseas ballot problems if he is to succeed in restoring a late primary.