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Past Could Be Precedent in Nevada Special Election

David Becker/Getty Images
Once Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (above) sets a special election date to replace Rep. Dean Heller (R), Secretary of State Ross Miller will offer his interpretation of the state’s special election process.

Nevada Democrats and Republicans await Secretary of State Ross Miller’s clarification of a 2003 law on the process for special elections, but there is precedent in the state for filling a federal seat through a special election that Miller could consult.

Miller, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he would not be ready to discuss his interpretation of the law until Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) sets a special election date to replace Rep. Dean Heller (R), who will vacate his 2nd district seat to fill the remainder of retiring GOP Sen. John Ensign’s term.

That is expected to happen in the next week, and the election must be held within the next six months. Both parties have read current special election law differently and are hoping their arguments win out in the forthcoming race.

Democrats say the law calls for an open contest, which allows for an unlimited number of candidates. Counsel for the state GOP has argued that a section of law in fact tasks the state party central committees with selecting nominees in a special House election.

Precedent could be on Republicans’ side, but with a new law passed less than 10 years ago it is unclear how much weight it will be given. In a 1954 special election to fill a Senate seat, the state central committees did select the nominees.

On Oct. 1, 1954, Gov. Charles Russell (R) appointed Reno lawyer Ernest Brown (R) to replace Sen. Pat McCarran (D), who had died three days earlier. However, McCarran’s term was not up until 1956, so Democrats pushed for a special election to be held in November to fill the remaining two years.

Even though the state Supreme Court had not yet ruled whether the appointment could stand through 1956 or whether a special election was necessary, an October 1954 New York Times article — which described the state’s election laws as “cloudy” — reported that “the state central committees of both parties selected possible candidates for an election contest” to be held Nov. 2.

“Mr. Brown was named by the Republican committee in a three-hour meeting last night,” the Times reported. “The Democratic committee met this afternoon in the state building across the street and named [Alan] Bible unanimously on its first vote.”

The court eventually ruled an election was necessary, and Brown faced off the following month against the Democratic Party’s handpicked candidate, Bible, who was also a Reno attorney. Bible won, took office Dec. 2 and went on to win election to a full term in 1956. He was re-elected in 1962 and 1968.

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