Heller Appointment Starts Uncertain Election Process

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Governor Brian Sandoval's big decision is behind him. Wednesday he announced he will name Congressman Dean Heller to replace Senator John Ensign who is set to resign next week.

His choice was widely expected, but it sets into motion a whole new process the state has never seen before, one which could be tested in court as well as at the ballot box and one that gives the state's cash-strapped counties one more unexpected expense.

Sandoval's decision dictates one more announcement: from the moment Heller is sworn in as a U-S Senator, his congressional seat will be open and Sandoval has seven days to set the date for a special election.

The law does set a deadline. It must take place on any Tuesday within 180 days, but county officials tell us logistical realities make it difficult to hold an election before mid-August, so don't expect the governor to set it any earlier.

The next question is who will be on the ballot and how will they get there.

Secretary of State Ross Miller has the unenviable task of setting the rules and state law, such as it is, gives only vague direction.

It is certain about one thing. There will be no primary. But is the election a face off between single candidates picked by each party or a free-for-all?

There's no mention of the party central committees picking nominees, so a free-for-all may be in the offing.

Like others familiar with the law, political scientist Fred Lokken thinks that where we may be headed.

"Literally anyone who steps forward and identifies themselves as a candidate and meets the minimum requirements can get on the ballot," says Lokken. "So you have a potential situation like the California recall election where you had 99 people on the ballot."

And if that happens, who does it favor?

"It doesn't favor the voting public," says Lokken. "It does favor those with name recognition who likely already have some money in a campaign account they could turn to, perhaps someone who's been through it recently."

That would be someone like Sharron Angle, fresh off an unsuccessful Senate run with an organization, a fundraising list and a habit of doing well in low turnout elections.

It could possibly work for a Democrat too, but only if the party unites behind a single strong candidate, say State Treasurer Kate Marshall, and pursuades others to stay out.

Finally, the question county officials across the state have to answer is how to pay for this unexpected election.

No one's come up with a total for the state, but Washoe County Voter Registrar estimates it will cost at least $350-thousand here alone and that's if state law allows an all mail-in ballot.

And the reality is whoever wins will be left with a term of barely a year, running for re-election from the moment the final vote is tallied.