The Nevada State Legislature building in Carson City as seen on Monday, Aug 14, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The high-stakes effort to recall two Nevada state senators is headed to court for the first time on Wednesday, the first public battle in a fight that could have a major impact on not only control of the state Senate, but on the state’s redistricting process.

The scheduled hearing on Wednesday in District Court marks the first time that backers of recalls targeting two Democratic state senators will be in court, but no matter the outcome, future legal battles will likely ensue before any special election is called.

It’s been several months since the attempted recalls have been in the news — here’s a primer on how the process works, who is supporting either side, and what’s at stake in court.

How do recalls work, exactly?

Under Nevada’s Constitution, any public officer (excluding elected judges) can be recalled from office.

The process to actually recall an elected official, however, isn’t that easy.

State law requires signatures to be gathered from at least 25 percent of registered voters who cast a vote in the election of the officeholder being recalled. All three original recall campaigns needed to garner signatures from several thousand voters to be considered valid (Joyce Woodhouse – 15,201, Nicole Cannizzaro – 14,975, Patricia Farley – 7,342)

Recall petitions can be circulated and signed for a period not to exceed 90 days after they are submitted to election officials. After that, the county clerk must count the raw number of signatures turned in and report that number to the secretary of state within four days.

If the number exceeds the 25 percent threshold, the clerk then must undertake a random sampling of signatures to check for validity — either 5 percent, or 500, whichever is greater. That sample is then given to the secretary of state’s office, which can trigger a reexamination if the random sample of signatures is more than 90 percent but less than 100 percent valid. The clerk then continues verifying signatures until all signatures are checked, or a large enough number to overcome the threshold to qualify for an election.

If qualified, the election clerk then calls for a special election between 10 and 20 days after the secretary of state verifies the signatures, unless a court case is filed challenging the results, which indefinitely delays any election.

No state legislator has been successfully recalled.

Who’s being recalled?

Democratic state Sens. Woodhouse and Cannizzaro, both of whom were elected in 2016. Independent Sen. Farley was also targeted by a recall, but the effort failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Recall backers targeting Cannizzaro turned in 16,875 signatures in November, with state election officials verifying in December that it narrowly had enough signatures to qualify for a special election after removing invalid signatures.

Similarly, the recall against Woodhouse submitted 17,502 signatures with state election officials verifying the signatures in early November.

So why are they in court?

Attorneys for Woodhouse and Cannizzaro filed separate suits against election officials and groups backing the recalls alleging that thousands of signatures submitted as part of the recalls should be “unqualified” for a variety of reasons.

One of the biggest questions to be answered will be over the status of withdrawal forms — a coordinated effort by Democrats led to thousands of people who initially signed the petitions to submit a form withdrawing their request for a recall. But attorneys for the recall PACs have argued that hundreds of the withdrawal forms shouldn’t count, because they were turned in after the recall petition itself was turned in.

In addition to the withdrawal forms, expect both sides to challenge or defend the validity of various groups of signatures, everything from missing dates on signatures to duplicates to signatures from people who didn’t vote in the state Senate races in 2016.

Who’s paying for it?

The only group to take credit for the recalls thus far has been the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group backing Republicans on state-level, down-ballot races.

According to its 2017 campaign finance report, the group reported spending more than $1 million on the recall efforts, including $560,000 towards the committee recalling Cannizzaro, $460,000 to the committee recalling Woodhouse and $160,000 to the committee recalling Farley. More than $118,000 of the funds taken by the recall committee against Farley were in turn given to the other two recall PACs.

Democrats created their own PAC dubbed “Our Voices, Our Vote” to combat the recall efforts, which in December reported raising more than $700,000 from various liberal donors, including the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Florida billionaire Donald Sussman and the National Education Association.

Why the delay?

There’s been relatively little public action on the recall court cases since the initial filings in November and December.

That’s because in January, Weiss issued an order consolidating the separate state-level cases filed by Cannizzaro and Woodhouse into a single case and scheduling hearings on the matter for Wednesday. Both sides of the case agreed with the decision.

What’s at stake?

2018 is a pivotal election if only for one reason — redistricting. Whichever party controls the legislative branch come 2020 will have the opportunity to control the state’s redistricting process, which means they’ll have the ability to redraw congressional districts, and boundaries for individual Assembly and Senate districts.

Nevada state senators serve 4-year terms, so those elected in 2018 will serve terms that last through 2022. However, Republicans face few promising pick-up opportunities among the 11 seats up in 2018, and have to defend swing seats held by former state Sen. Becky Harris and Farley (who was elected as a Republican).

Democrats currently hold an 11-8 advantage in the state Senate (after Republican Sen. Becky Harris resigned to become head of the state’s Gaming Control Board), but the nonpartisan Farley caucused and often voted with Democrats during the 2017 legislative session. If both Woodhouse and Cannizzaro were recalled and replaced, Republicans would control the chamber on a 10-9 margin, even with Farley continuing to support Democrats. Plus, incumbency is a powerful factor in elections, and holding those two seats would make a path to the majority in 2020 a more realistic path for Republicans.

Who’s representing them?

Both sides of the case will be argued by high-profile attorneys. The two Democratic state senators have enlisted Marc Elias, a prominent national attorney who served as Hillary Clinton’s general counsel during the 2016 campaign, to deliver their arguments during the case on Wednesday.

The recall groups will be represented on Wednesday by Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, through his firm of Hutchison & Steffen.

What happens next?

Wednesday likely won’t be the end of the legal battle over the recalls. Although it’s unclear if Wiese will issue a ruling from the bench or in the coming weeks, both sides have likely prepared contingency options, including an immediate appeal to the state’s Supreme Court, and attorneys for the Democrats can request a stay if elections are ordered.

Failing that, attorneys for the Democrats have also filed a separate suit in federal District Court against Nevada election officials, challenging several aspects of Nevada’s recall laws. That case has essentially been put on ice, with both sides agreeing to hold off on having a hearing or moving forward upon the results of the state-level case.

From the Editor

The Nevada Independent is a 501c3 nonprofit. We have generous corporate donors, but we can’t survive on those alone. We need support from our readers. I know you have many commitments. But if you would support our work (or bump up your current donation), we would be forever grateful.
Best,
Jon Ralston
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