Clark County voters will soon choose their next district attorney. But nearly 60 percent of the 994,000 registered voters will be left out — excluded from casting a ballot for DA because they’re not Democrats.
That’s because of a 2015 law authored by state Sen. James Settelmeyer which moved candidates from the general election to the primary if the race includes only contenders from one party.
That makes the primary winner the victor based solely on the votes from that party. Voters from other parties get no say in the race because the name of the primary winner only appears on the general election ballot.
The DA contest between incumbent Democrat Steve Wolfson and challenger Robert Langford is the only county-wide race that will be decided on June 12. State Senate District 10 and Assembly District 42 also will be decided in the primary because there are only Democratic candidates on the ballot. Another 30 seats throughout Clark County will appear on the November ballot but are effectively decided because there is only one candidate.
“The parties’ argument is it’s a private-party function and people who are not registered with the party aren’t eligible to vote,” said Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at College of Southern Nevada and president of the League of Women Voters Nevada. “But you’re using taxpayer dollars. You’re basically electing representatives and excluding voters.”
Some voters found a workaround: They change their party affiliation to vote in the primary of their choice, and switch back before the next election.
The campaigns for both men say that affected their strategy because primaries traditionally have lower voter turnout.
“It costs a lot of money to reach a limited amount of people,” said Dan Hart, Langford’s political consultant. “So the other parts of the campaign like social media and the door-to-door canvassing play a larger role in primary elections than they do in general elections.”
Tom Letizia, Wolfson’s campaign manager, said his team is also focused on door-to-door canvassing. And although more Republicans generally vote in primaries, Letizia thinks Democratic turnout will be strong because of contests such as the governor’s race.
“I think this year the races at the top of the ticket will definitely drive turnout for the Democrats,” Letizia said.
Why it changed
This is Nevada’s second election cycle under the current system.
Settelmeyer, R-Minden, said his intention was to make voting in the Silver State more inclusive, but the bill was amended and brought about the change. Settelmeyer said he will propose a revision to the law next year.
“In counties where you don’t have individuals of a certain party wishing to run, it creates a limitation,” Settelmeyer said. “I will bring something back to try to look at reversing this aspect of the system where so many people feel they are disenfranchised.”
Election officials say they got an earful of complaints about the new rules two years ago.
“We heard a fair amount of griping from the rural counties in 2016 about the law change because it meant only Republicans could vote in certain races,” said Wayne Thorley, deputy Secretary of State for elections.
Another Settelmeyer bill from 2015 could also play a factor in this year’s elections. That bill made it so candidates win nonpartisan races if they receive more than 50 percent of the primary vote.
Nine such races are on Clark County ballots this year, including the race for sheriff and a pair of school board races.
Primary races in Clark County will serve as the only election for three seats because only Democrats are running in each contest.
Clark County District Attorney (Robert Langford, Steve Wolfson)
Senate District 10 (Yvanna Cancela, Bryce Henderson)
Assembly District 42 (Alexander Assefa, LaDon Henry, Kathleen Lauckner)