Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Step gingerly, politicians. Recall fever is sweeping Nevada.
Rural cities and counties have seen a spate of citizens who are unhappy with their elected officers taking advantage of a new state law that makes it easier to unseat incumbents.
There have been two recalls in the city of Tonopah, two in Fernley and one for the Nye County Commission, according to the Nevada secretary of state’s office.
The law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Gibbons this year changed who can sign a recall petition.
Any registered voter, even those who didn’t live in the district when the politician was elected, may now sign a recall petition, creating larger pools of potential signers of recall petitions.
Previously, only residents who voted in the election when the target won office could sign a petition, according to an interpretation of the Nevada Constitution by Secretary of State Ross Miller.
The constitution reads: “Not less than twenty-five percent (25%) of the number who actually voted in the state or in the county, district, or municipality which he represents, at the election in which he was elected” must sign a recall for the matter to appear on the ballot.
The secretary of state’s office says the word “actually” is key there. And state law can’t trump the constitution, but no one has challenged the new law in court.
Constitutional issues aside, the effect, if you ask the recallees, has not been good. Politicians are claiming that they’re being threatened with recalls on every controversial vote, by both sides of an issue.
Take Fernley. After a vote to restrict the burning of trash and require residents to have mandatory garbage pickup, a reportedly small number of residents recalled Monte Martin in October. About 8.7 percent of registered voters showed up to vote — 97 for the recall and 58 against.
Martin had been elected in 2001 and ran unopposed in 2006, according to the Fernley city clerk’s office. Martin had not been accused of crime or scandal, but merely voted in a way some residents didn’t like, his supporters noted.
Then unhappy Fernley residents decided to recall another councilman. Once again, it appeared that there would be a low turnout — read: a high percentage of the angry voters.
“I think it’s ludicrous that a small number of votes can overturn the process. It’s not right and it’s not way the system is supposed to work,” Fernley Councilman Curt Chaffin told the Reno Gazette-Journal in October. Chaffin survived a recall election Friday. Mayor LeRoy Goodman said some support for Chaffin can be attributed to a backlash against an earlier recall effort.
The new state law trumped the secretary of state’s opinion last year over two Boulder City recall efforts, which were disqualified because of the earlier interpretation of the constitution.
Still, recall enthusiasm has remained the province of the smaller municipalities, where the signature gathering can be carried out by a small number of dedicated volunteers.
It has yet to spread to Clark County’s larger governments. But unless the law is changed, that fever could spread. And there’s no vaccine, yet.