Nevada Primary and Caucus History

History of Nevada Presidential Preference Primary Elections and Caucuses

By the Legislative Counsel Bureau's Legal Division

Nevada has had varied experiences with presidential primary elections and caucuses over the years. The following provides a brief description of the selection of presidential candidates and electors since 1864, the year Nevada became a state.

Beginning in 1864, Nevada elected “presidential electors” through a direct vote of the people. With the exception of the Democratic Party in 1912, this practice continued through the presidential election of 1948. During the presidential election cycle of 1912, the Democratic Party opted to hold “a presidential preference vote in connection with their May 14 election which elected 196 delegates to the Fallon convention of that year” (Legislative Counsel Bureau [LCB] Bulletin No. 32, December 1958). A broad interpretation at the time of Chapter 18, Statutes of Nevada 1883, presumably provided the authority for this primary election. This statute states, in part, that a political party may call for a primary election, and that a resolution making such a call shall contain “the object for which the election is called” (LCB Bulletin No. 32). An additional measure passed by the 1911 Legislature also provided some authority to conduct presidential preference primary elections by stating that political parties shall not be restricted from holding “primaries and conventions for the selection of delegates to the national conventions” (Chapter 165, Statutes of Nevada 1911).

While Democratic Party leaders in 1912 believed State law at the time authorized the presidential preference primary election, the following analysis in LCB Bulletin No. 32 (page 9) suggests that, despite the interpretation at the time, the primary election held by the Democratic Party in 1912 may not have been specifically authorized: 

Under actual application of the existing laws in May of 1912, there existed no provision for the holding of presidential primary elections. Evidently, this was not apparent to Democratic leaders or officials of the state. This peculiar situation arose by action that evidently the Legislature itself was not aware of when in 1911, at the same Session of the Legislature that passed Chapter 165, there was repealed the older Chapter 18 of 1883. The provisions of Chapter 165, as given above, made reference to authority granted under a chapter which was itself repealed at the very same Session of the Legislature.

The report continues by stipulating that the Democratic Party in Nevada, despite calling for the presidential primary election of 1912, never specified whether the vote of the people would be binding for the party delegation sent to the national convention. As it turned out, the vote so heavily favored one candidate that the issue never needed to be addressed. The Democratic Party’s use of a presidential preference primary in 1912 placed Nevada among the first states to use this method of election.

Following the 1912 Primary Election, the Democratic Party returned to the practice used by other major political parties in the State and placed its slate of electors before the voters for approval or disapproval. This practice continued through the election of 1948. During the 1949 Legislative Session, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 3 and Assembly Bill 4 (Chapters 38 and 14, Statutes of Nevada, respectively), which eliminated the practice of directly electing presidential electors and set forth a procedure for the selection of electors at each political party’s State convention.

During the 1953 Legislative Session, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 229 (Chapter 299, Statutes of Nevada), which provided for the holding of a presidential preference primary election every four years. After its passage, many concerns were raised regarding the timing of the election (proposed for the month of June), its costs, and the ability to secure a strong voter turnout for the election. Responding, the 1955 Legislature repealed the presidential primary provisions of S.B. 229 before the 1956 presidential election took place.

Following the passage of S.B. 229 in 1953 and its repeal in 1955, presidential electors continued to be nominated at each party’s State convention. In 1973, however, the Legislature again passed legislation creating a presidential preference primary election. This measure, Assembly Bill 755 (Chapter 625, Statutes of Nevada), created a “closed” presidential primary election, whereby only registered Democrats could vote for Democratic candidates, and only registered Republicans for Republican candidates. Under A.B. 755, the date of the primary was set for the fourth Tuesday in May of each presidential election year. Presidential preference primary elections were subsequently held in 1976 and 1980 as governed by A.B. 755.

The provisions of A.B. 755, however, were repealed by the 1981 Legislature in Assembly Bill 138 (Chapter 744, Statutes of Nevada). Reasons cited for the repeal of the presidential primary law included the associated cost, a lack of interest by the public (low voter turnout), and the fact that presidential nominees had been determined by earlier primary elections in other states. Since that time (with the exception of the 1996 Republican presidential preference primary election), Nevada has used a closed caucus system—much like the process used for the presidential elections held between 1952 and 1972—for determining delegates at the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination conventions.

The Legislature again considered and passed legislation during the 1995 Legislative Session creating a presidential preference primary election. Assembly Bill 695 (Chapter 685, Statutes of Nevada) gave each major political party in Nevada the option to participate in a presidential preference primary election. Furthermore, the measure stipulated that the election be conducted by mail, with the election materials to resemble those distributed for absentee voting. The Republican Party chose to participate in the presidential preference primary election, which took place on March 26, 1996. The total cost of the election to the State of Nevada was $555,483. The provisions of A.B. 695 expired by limitation on July 1 1997.

Finally, during the 1999 Legislative Session, the Legislature considered two measures that would have created a presidential preference primary election similar to the one conducted in 1996. Assembly Bill 505 and Senate Bill 548 both died for lack of action in the Assembly.