Bill Would Make It Harder to Recall Elected Officials

Senator Patricia Farley testifying on a bill that would change the recall law she was subject to.

In late summer of 2017, a coalition affiliated with former Senator Michael Roberson initiated recall petitions against three sitting State Senators – Joyce Woodhouse, Nicole Cannizzaro and Patricia Farley.

Woodhouse was in her last term. Cannizzaro – who was recently made Senate Majority Leader after the resignation of Kelvin Atkinson – had just been elected the year before to her first term. And Farley had announced she would not be running for reelection because she was going to be foster parenting her two nieces.

The recalls listed no reason why voters should remove the Senators from their elected offices. They didn’t need to list a reason. State law only lists the rules for filing, collecting and counting signatures.

A new bill does not list specific reasons for recalling elected officials, but it does aim to make the collecting and counting procedures more stringent in the hopes of deterring frivolous recall elections.

SB450 would require people submitting a recall petition to pay for all costs associated with the recall – including counting signatures from voters to have a special election. They would also have to pay a deposit to start the recall process.

The bill, sponsored by Senator James Ohrenschall’s Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, would also require all signatures to be counted. Existing law requires only 5 percent to be counted. That provision ended up in court, with U.S. District Judge Jerry Wiese ordering the Clark County Registrar to count all petition signatures.

After appeals, Cannizzaro and Woodhouse are awaiting a Supreme Court decision on the matter. Not enough signatures were collected in Farley’s district, which is now represented by Marylin Dondero-Loop, whom Farley had defeated in 2014.

The new law also doubles down on the ability for people to take their signatures off of a recall petition.

Many people whose names were on recall petitions said they did not sign, or that they were harassed into signing.

In fact, while presenting the bill, Ohrenschall recounted talking to people who were horrified to find their names were on recall petitions for Cannizzaro.

As the Senators and their supporters were going door to door to encourage people not to sign any petitions, they heard stories of people being told that signing a petition would support the Senator facing recall. Canvassers even had “Decline to Sign” cards, even as they were asking people to sign.

“I talked to many voters who were not aware that their name was on any petition, not aware they had signed a petition on a Senator they loved,” Ohrenschall told the committee about his time walking Cannizzaro’s district.

Farley testified about going to a home in Woodhouse’s district that “looked like it had been empty for months,” but the names of the former tenants were on a petition.

“I came to a gentleman who was a registered Democrat. He had been told that Joyce Woodhouse was under investigation for embezzlement from the school district, and that is why they were recalling. I had to explain to that voter that in that case, it would be a criminal matter not an election matter,” Farley told the committee in a hearing on April 10.

“Needless to say I was just shocked by the process – the out and out lies.”

SB450 would also punish people who procured signatures by nefarious means. Signature collectors would be subject to a category E felony for lying to people to get them to sign, and a separate felony for obtaining that signature.

Kevin Powers, counsel to the committee said the penalties are the same as general election penalties, which would come with the possibility of one to four years in prison.

The bill would also limit campaign contributions to candidates in a recall election. And it would require candidates to dispose of the money collected for a special election campaign, rather than use it for a future election.

Maureen Schafer, executive director of the Council for a Better Nevada testified in support of the bill. “Recall election law has become a growing interest to our organization after witnessing the last few election cycles where this provision was used more as a political tool between parties rather than any concern about impropriety.”