The long campaign

Photo By DENNIS MYERS What if they gave an election, and nobody came? Poll workers at a 2008 polling place in Sparks.

The week this edition of the News & Review comes out will be the halfway point in this year’s general election.

To put it a different way, there is just as much of the general election campaign still to go as voters have already gone through.

This is a new experience for Nevada, which has previously had short general election campaigns.

Since the party primary election was created in 1910, all but three have been held in early September, creating an eight-week general election campaign. Now, the state has a general election campaign that is 21 weeks long. In earlier years, the general election campaign would not yet have started.

How did this happen?

In 2005, the primary election was moved back from September to August to give county clerks more time to get ready for general elections. So in 2006 and 2008, the primary was held in August.

Those two longer campaigns were enough for Washoe County Sen. William Raggio, who introduced a measure at the 2009 Nevada Legislature to return the primary date to September. Instead, the lawmakers amended Raggio’s bill to move the date forward to June, and it passed that way.

When Raggio’s bill was examined in committee hearings, various officials kept finding reasons against having the primary in different months.

September was too late for county election officials to get everything done for the general election, plus they would have to pay for people to work on Labor Day.

Summer months meant low voter turnout, though in the case of August the evidence on this point was inconclusive. Raggio aide Isaiah Price provided figures showing the impact of the August date on turnout. Turnout went down in August in 2008, a presidential year, but the first time the August date was used, in the 2006 midterm election, turnout went up:

September 2002 27.72 percent

September 2004 29.16 percent

August 2006 30.06 percent

August 2008 17.97 percent

(These figures actually exaggerate the turnout. They are for percentage of registered voters, not of eligible voters.)

Few people seemed to want it, but things were gravitating back to June.

Besides 2006 and 2008, there was one other year when Nevada had an early primary, and it was instructive. That was 1954. At the 1953 Nevada Legislature, legislators enacted a bill to create a Nevada presidential primary in June. In one of those bursts of extravagance for which the legislature is known, the lawmakers decided they didn’t want to pay for two primary elections in presidential years, so they moved the date of the regular state primary from September to June. This made for a very long general election campaign and the reaction from both public and candidates was fierce—they didn’t like it. So in 1955, the legislators repealed the whole thing, including the presidential portion, and moved the primary back to September. It was never used for a presidential primary.

At the 2009 legislature, Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax told the lawmakers of the problems of county officials.

“The 45-day deadline for the September timeline falls during the canvass and contest period,” he said. “The primary election would be September 7. 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.”

It’s fair to say that Lomax’s account was received by some of the legislators with skepticism. Nevada election officials had been holding September primaries for decades before computer technology made it easier. What once took a county clerk days of sorting or a drive across the state could now be accomplished with the push of a button. “He’s saying he can do less with more,” one lawmaker later said.

They were more concerned with Lomax’s warning of a recount: “The time line I gave does not include the possibility of a recount. There is not enough time to mail ballots overseas if there is a recount. A statewide recount allows five days to initiate once requested and another five days to conduct the recount. A delay of five to eight days before ballots could be printed would occur. Litigations involving petitions cause delays and cost Clark County $100,000 in overtime during the 2008 election. It can be done but at a cost.”

There were also concerns about holiday pay on Labor Day.

Given a choice between keeping the primary in August and moving it to June, Raggio reluctantly went along with moving it to June. His bill’s original intent of moving the primary back to September apparently did not have enough support.

“I realize the county clerks do not prefer the September date, although many states do have September primaries,” Raggio said. “A September date would accommodate all and shorten the length of the election process. … I am voting for this only because I cannot support the primary in the middle of August. That was a mistake we made. We are making a second mistake by lengthening the time for general elections. The cost of the election will increase because of the length of time between when a candidate files and November.”

Though few said anything on the record about it, some of the sentiment for the change may well have been incumbency protection. The earlier primary would make for a longer, more expensive general election campaign, and incumbents usually are better able to raise money than challengers. And a shorter primary election campaign would minimize the advantages of shoe leather campaigns in which challengers try to walk to every household in the district.

During debate on the 2005 bill when a June primary was discussed, Assemblymember Harvey Munford had said, “The incumbent would definitely have the advantage starting in June. Since I am an incumbent, I think that’s cool.” But he said if he were running as a challenger, he would be unhappy.

Munford: “Primary races sometimes have as much impact on the outcome of the election as the general. That is possibly why they have them later in September—to give the candidates more time to campaign. This cuts down on the campaign time in a sense.”

Raggio remains certain that September is the better choice.

“The time now between the primary and the general, as you can see, is just costly. That’s where the cost is. And it’s costly to the candidates, raising money, and it’s a long period of time,” he said last week.

So Nevada now has a June primary. Meanwhile, 14 jurisdictions— eight states, two territories, and the District of Columbia—are having September primaries, most of them on Sept. 14 (later than Nevada’s former September primaries) and one of them on Sept. 18.

And Louisiana will hold its primary in October.

Note: The quotations from hearings in this story are from the committee minutes, which sometimes are paraphrases rather than straight transcriptions.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
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 Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.