LAS VEGAS — Republicans here in the suburban desert have begun recall campaigns against three Democratic state senators without giving an official cause, raising concerns nationally that they are using recalls to give the GOP the power to redraw legislative district lines after the 2020 elections.
The recall campaigns, which are being challenged in court beginning Wednesday, target state senators who represent politically divided middle-class neighborhoods. The coordinated efforts began less than a year after the senators won election to four-year terms and rely on a Nevada law that allows voters to recall state officials without stating a reason. The campaign has drawn allegations from Democrats — and at least one high-ranking Republican, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval — that a provision designed to help voters hold elected officials accountable is being used to advance partisan goals.
If successful, the test here could provide a model for other states that also allow recalls without any allegations of malfeasance. That could change the balance of power as congressional and legislative districts are redrawn across the country. In states that, like Nevada, lack independent redistricting commissions, the party in control after the 2020 elections will oversee redistricting — a procedure that has often has included "gerrymandering" of boundaries to give one party an electoral advantage.
With control of Congress potentially at stake, Republican and Democratic organizations have promised resources to help shape the outcome of state races next year and in 2020, with a focus on Minnesota, Maine, New Mexico and Nevada. At the neighborhood level, the contest is already underway.
In the Desert Shores community, along Huber Heights and Surfwood Drive, residents have been besieged in recent weeks by petition efforts for and against the recalls. Voters in this western Las Vegas suburb are still recovering from the last election, and few have a firm grasp of what all the activity is about.
"Almost every day someone has been here," said Republican voter Floyd Turner, 63, who was working under the hood of his daughter's silver-gray Mustang one recent morning. "I just think there is so much crap going on right now, by both sides."
The recall is a relatively new tool, and it is gaining popularity. Fearing a precedent, the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has raised nearly $1 million to beat back the recalls here, big money for races often determined by just a few hundred votes. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, run by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., has pledged $50,000 to the anti-recall effort.
"There's real reason to think that the kind of gamesmanship we have seen would go into hyper-drive ahead of an election where the stakes are so high," said Wendy Weiser, who runs the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
Weiser noted that since 2010, the election preceding the last redistricting process, Republican-led efforts in 20 states have imposed new requirements for voter registration and for casting ballots. Critics have argued in court that such measures are designed to suppress minority voting, a charge being raised about the Nevada recalls as well.
Nevada's legislature will draw the new state legislative and congressional boundaries, with the governor having a veto over the final maps. Until recently, Nevada was a Republican stronghold, but the partisan balance in the state capital changed abruptly after the last election, when Democrats won control of the Assembly and Senate. Republicans now are in charge of just the executive branch, and Sandoval cannot run for reelection next year because of term limits.
Political observers here say Republicans have opportunities before 2020 to retake the Assembly, whose 42 members all face election next year and again two years later. The GOP's regaining control of the Senate by then is far less likely.
"So they want to change the map," said Aaron Ford, the Democratic leader in the state Senate. "These are sore losers asking voters to think again about elected leaders, and these are excellent senators who they voted for less than a year ago."
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow the recall of state officials, and fewer than half require voters to give a reason. Of those that do, the cause usually must involve malfeasance in office, a stipulation meant to prevent strictly partisan recall campaigns.
Marc Elias, the attorney for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, said the recalls in Nevada arise simply because the Republicans will not accept the election results. He filed a lawsuit seeking to block the recalls, arguing that a new election would violate the Voting Rights Act.
"In Nevada recalls can be employed as a political tactic, to force a do-over election with a smaller electorate, composed of fewer racial minorities, for no reason other than dissatisfaction with the outcome of the prior election," Elias argues in the lawsuit. Turnout is often lower in special elections, especially where language barriers exist, as they do in these districts.
Republicans say the efforts comply with Nevada law and that it is hypocritical for Democrats to complain about recall elections. In 2011, Democrats launched recalls in Wisconsin against six Republican state senators over legislation that severely restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The campaigns could have swung control of the Wisconsin Senate to Democrats, but just two of the six were recalled. Elias worked for Democrats in Wisconsin during the recall.
Nevada Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson (R) called the recalls in his state "democracy in action."
"Now, Hillary Clinton's D.C. attorney wants to undercut the constitutional rights of Nevada voters by telling us who we can and cannot vote for," Roberson said in a written statement. "Hillary Clinton's D.C. attorney thinks it's wrong to recall Democrats in Nevada, yet he was more than happy to help with the recall of Republicans in Wisconsin."
The three state senators are Patricia Farley, Joyce Woodhouse and Nicole Cannizzaro, who represents the district that includes Desert Shores.
Farley was elected in 2016 as a Republican, then changed her party affiliation to independent and aligned herself with Democrats. Soon after the recall effort was announced against her, she said she did not intend to run again, leaving the seat open.
The signatures collected to recall Woodhouse, a former elementary school principal now in her third and final term, were certified this month. Woodhouse would face the same Republican candidate she defeated last year if the recall vote is held.
Cannizzaro remains in limbo, the recall petitions targeting her yet to be certified. A deputy district attorney and the first in her family to graduate from college, Cannizzaro was elected last year to her first term, narrowly winning an open seat formerly held by Republicans.
The recall effort has divided state Republicans, all of whom have been reluctant to discuss it. Sandoval, a popular governor, told the Nevada Independent that "there really wasn't, I think, a legitimate reason for the recalls."
"So it just kind of escalates the politics, mean-spiritedness politics," he continued. "I think both parties will now use it on a regular basis, and that's not what Nevada politics has ever been and that's not what it should be." Sandoval's communications staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison (R) called the recalls "empowering" in an interview with the Nevada Independent. His law firm is representing the recall committees, although he said in the interview that he is not involved "in terms of setting some sort of broad policy." Hutchison did not respond to requests for comment.
The voters behind the recall efforts also are elusive. Stephen Silberkraus, a former state assemblyman heading the Woodhouse recall, did not respond to requests for comment. The phone numbers listed on the Cannizzaro committee forms have been disconnected.Neil Roth, a leader of the Cannizzaro recall committee, declined to meet with a Washington Post reporter and declined requests to comment.
Woodhouse, 73, learned about the recall against her from a friend in her district, who called asking, "What in the world is going on?" The friend had just been solicited by a door-knocker to sign a recall petition.
"Nobody had heard anything about it," Woodhouse said. "Needless to say, I was shocked to begin with because I've spent my entire life and certainly my career both as an educator and as a legislator working for private citizens in my district. So it was big-gulp time."
The recent Nevada legislative sessions took on several big national issues, including a Medicaid-for-all health-care bill, legislation to boost the solar-panel industry, and a major GOP priority of expanding school choice.
The health-care bill passed but was vetoed by Sandoval. The solar-panel measure became law, and the school-choice legislation was defeated. All have provided grist for a recall effort that both sides say has distorted the truth.
Cannizzaro, who learned about her recall from a reporter's tweet, said much of the legislation she sponsored secured Republican support, leaving the 34-year-old dismayed over why she is a target.
In canvassing her district during the signature-gathering process, Cannizzaro said she has been told misleading stories about her record that door-knockers are pitching to would-be voters.
"It's just bizarre," she said. "I have heard that I'm extremely anti-law enforcement and that I hate police officers. My day job is a prosecutor with the district attorney's office. They have said I am trying to let all the criminals out of jail, which I think is antithetical to what I have spent my professional life doing."
The confusion is clear along the loop of Huber Heights and Surfwood Drive in Desert Shores, where David Fallon, a retired driver for the supermarket chain Vons, cleared his yard of vines and weeds on a recent morning.
"They told me she was forcing through some budget legislation and that she supports Obamacare, and I don't know how much more of that I can take," said Fallon, 77, who signed the petition and echoed the explanation several others in Desert Shores gave for doing so.
"She's a Democrat," he said, "and I'm a Republican."
Eloy Fernandez, 56, a retired Department of Energy employee, is a Democrat who lives down the street. He, too, signed the recall petition. He supported Cannizzaro in 2016 and will vote in the special election, if it happens.
"If I vote for someone, I expect that person to do the job," Fernandez said. "I'll look into this more before I vote next time."