Seems there’s nothing like a deadline, or perhaps a U.S. House vacancy, to focus the mind. That mantra apparently applied to both the Legislature — which passed a bare bones special election law eight years ago — and the secretary of state’s office, which never got around to writing regulations governing how a special election should be conducted.
Now that Nevada is facing its first U.S. House vacancy, the state Supreme Court will decide how the next representative from the 2nd Congressional District will be chosen. It’s a political process that most justices appeared uncomfortable wading into, based on questions they asked during oral arguments Tuesday on the case that will decide the matter.
“Why shouldn’t we let the secretary of state make this decision?” Justice Mark Gibbons said. “Otherwise we’re going to have judges running elections, and that may not be a good idea.”
Nevada has never had to deal with a House vacancy, so policymakers had little incentive to address the issue. Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a law it hoped would expedite filling vacancies in the U.S. House should a calamity wipe out a significant number of representatives.
But the process for filling U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s old seat has been anything but expedited in Nevada. No primary election is allowed under state law, opening up the question of how candidates get onto the special election ballot.
At issue is whether the special election should be open to any qualified candidate — an interpretation decided by Secretary of State Ross Miller that would set up a free-for-all among the 30 candidates already filed to run.
Or, should the political parties be allowed to nominate candidates, the position argued by the Nevada Republican Party, which filed the lawsuit. In that scenario, former Nevada Republican Chairman Mark Amodei would compete against state Treasurer Kate Marshall, a Democrat.
In this case, it wasn’t a terrorist act that opened up the vacancy, rather a sex scandal that forced U.S. Sen. John Ensign to resign. Heller was appointed to Ensign’s seat, leaving Nevada’s sprawling 2nd District open.
With little fanfare following the passage of the federal law, the Nevada Legislature signed off on a state law governing special House elections.