Nevada Republican Party sues to stop from being forced to use a presidential primary instead of a caucus

A Nevada news outlet has the details here, and the news release from the Nevada Republican Party is here. It took me a while to find the complaint, which was filed in state court last week in a state jurisdiction that does not have electronic access. That complaint is here.

The complaint argues that the First Amendment protects the right of the state party to run a presidential delegate selection process as it sees fit, and the Nevada Republican Party (apparently) desires to hold caucuses. But the Nevada legislature two years ago approved a switch to a primary process in AB126. The Nevada Republican Party is suing to stop that.

The Supreme Court in 1981 offered a succinct, if somewhat messy, statement of the legal framework (which I highlighted during last year’s DNC calendar shuffle) in Democratic Party of the United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette:

The State has a substantial interest in the manner in which its elections are conducted, and the National Party has a substantial interest in the manner in which the delegates to its National Convention are selected. But these interests are not incompatible, and to the limited extent they clash in this case, both interests can be preserved. The National Party rules do not forbid Wisconsin to conduct an open primary. But if Wisconsin does open its primary, it cannot require that Wisconsin delegates to the National Party Convention vote there in accordance with the primary results, if to do so would violate Party rules.

States can, essentially, hold whatever presidential primaries they like, whenever they like, however they like. But the national party is not obligated to recognize the results ahead of the presidential nominating convention.

Nevada Republicans, then, are free to hold a nominating caucus at the time and place they want. The State of Nevada, however, is also free to hold a presidential primary. Voters who participate in that primary may not affect the outcome of the selection of delegates–essentially, a “beauty contest.”

This is hardly novel. In 2016, for instance, Bernie Sanders won the Washington caucus–which was a step in sending delegates to the Democratic national convention–while Hillary Clinton later that year won the Washington presidential preference primaries–which were non-binding and had no formal outcome on the process.

Now, AB126 provides, “Any rules or regulations of the party governing the election of delegates and alternates to the national convention of the party, or directing the votes of delegates at the national convention must reasonably reflect the results of the presidential preference primary election, if one has been held for the party.” That is clearly unenforceable against the Nevada Republican Party per Democratic Party v. Wisconsin. (UPDATE: It appears that this provision was then repealed by SB292 months after it was enacted, so it’s not clear that there’s much left to this suit….)

So, the complaint (which could be removed to federal court as it is a First Amendment issue, although perhaps the Secretary of State chooses not to do so) could succeed in seeking injunctive relief or a writ of prohibition. That is, under on-point Supreme Court precedent, the State of Nevada cannot force the party to accept the results of a presidential primary. (Now, that being said, the complaint is fairly imprecise and does not exactly identify what the party wants to see enjoined, speaking more abstractly elsewhere about being “force[d] . . . to use a state-run primary.” The state can still hold a primary per Democratic Party v. Wisconsin.)

On the declaratory relief front, the plaintiff may fare slightly better. The Nevada Republican Party wants a declaration that the party is free to use a caucus system or that primary results are not binding.

One wrinkle to any relief, however: the complaint does not say that the Nevada Republican Party has committed to any particular presidential delegate selection process for 2024. That may mean that the complaint is not ripe for adjudication, as it is possible that the party chooses to use the primary process, and there is no legal conflict if that happens. It seems to want a declaration that it is free to do what it wants without formally indicating that it does not want a primary.

Finally, there are some “conventional wisdom” political ideas floating about that suggesting an intra-party feud, too–the conventional wisdom being, Donald Trump may fare better a smaller event with the most “die hards” in attendance, whereas a (closed) primary election that brings more Republican voters into the selection process will be to his detriment. It’s not clear whether that’s the motivation, or whether that would be the actual effect. And even here, many Republicans in the Nevada legislature favored AB126–this bill was not along starkly partisan lines. But it also highlights potential internal divisions about what process should be used.

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