As Nevada prepares to vote, caucuses themselves are on the line

Why We Wrote This

Nervous party officials acknowledge that Saturday’s caucuses could be the last hurrah for a complex system that favors party activists. Still, a successful event, combined with early voting, could preserve the system.  

Scott Sonner/AP
People wait in line at an early caucus site at the Sparks Library, in Sparks, Nev., on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. More than 300 people were waiting in a line that snaked through aisles of shelves at the library. Dozens left without voting. “Turnout is much bigger than we expected,” Sparks site leader Carissa Snedeker said.

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Ever since the debacle in Iowa, Kimi Cole has been fielding multiple calls a day from Nevadans feeling anxious about their state’s upcoming presidential caucuses.

They’re asking, why not just get rid of caucuses and hold a simple primary instead, says Ms. Cole, rural caucus chair of the Nevada Democratic Party in Douglas County, which borders Lake Tahoe. 

In order to open up the process to more people, Nevada Democrats added early voting to their caucus this year. And if the early voting process offers any indication of how Saturday will go, Nevada may be in for a bumpy ride. As the first day of early voting began at the Cardenas Market in east Las Vegas, just two volunteers were working with iPads to check a long line of people in.

Still, some experts can see the Nevada caucuses surviving if they can make this new hybrid work. Switching back to a primary is not as simple as it might sound – state Republicans pushed for a primary in 2014 and failed. And then there’s the much bigger question of what might happen to Nevada’s place in the presidential primary calendar. “My main question is, will Nevada lose its standing in the country?” asks Ms. Cole.

Ever since the debacle in Iowa, Kimi Cole has been fielding multiple calls a day from Nevadans feeling anxious about their state’s upcoming presidential caucuses.

They’re asking, why not just get rid of caucuses and hold a simple primary instead, says Ms. Cole, rural caucus chair of the Nevada Democratic Party in Douglas County, which borders Lake Tahoe. With all eyes on Nevada as it prepares for Saturday’s voting, Iowa is a “fresh wound in many people’s minds,” she says. 

Even before Iowa, Ms. Cole says she was asked whether it made sense to continue holding caucuses. The problems with Iowa’s app for recording results – software Nevada was also planning to use but has now dropped – has dramatically intensified the debate about the future of caucuses in the Silver State and elsewhere. Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and other leading party figures are urging an end to the process altogether.

Caucuses date back to the early 1800s, when party bosses chose nominees behind closed doors. More accessible primaries gained ground in the Progressive Era, but were nonbinding. Democratic reforms in the 1970s led to today’s primary system, but a dwindling number of states and territories still hang on to caucuses. Today’s debate pits a complex system that favors party activists and rewards a candidate’s ground game against a streamlined process that’s more accessible to voters, and, many argue, is more democratic. 

Nevada is actually a relative newcomer to caucuses. At the urging of former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada switched in 2008 from holding a presidential primary in June to a caucus in February.  This made Nevada the “first in the West,” balancing out Iowa and New Hampshire in both geographic and racial diversity, and greatly raising the state’s profile and influence. It still holds a primary in June, but for other offices.

Interviews at early voting sites in Las Vegas over the weekend found many voters eager to ditch the caucus system. This city, by far the state’s largest, runs 24/7. Not everyone can commit to an hourslong gathering on a given date, where voters try to convince each other to back their preferred candidate, and delegates are apportioned based on a complex formula.

“It’s a thing of the past century,” says Jose Martinez, who works as a porter at The Mirage hotel and casino, and favors returning to a primary. 

Iowa’s faulty app was the least of its problems, adds Wayne Steger, professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago and a native Iowan. The bigger issue was new DNC rules requiring precincts to report the first alignment of votes, the second alignment of votes, and the final delegate count, even as caucus participants arrive late and leave early. “It’s so easy to make a mistake,” he says.

In order to open up the process to more people, Nevada Democrats added early voting to their caucus this year. For four days ending Feb. 18, Democrats could vote at any designated place in their county. Early voters were told to mark a minimum of three choices in order of preference on paper ballots, and the results will be combined with caucus results on Saturday. Essentially, it’s a caucus combined with a ranked-voting primary.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders attends a campaign event in Carson City, Nevada, Feb. 16, 2020. In 2016, Senator Sanders decried the Nevada caucuses as rigged – complaints that led to this year’s changes in caucus reporting rules.

If the early voting process offers any indication of how Saturday will go, Nevada may be in for a bumpy ride. 

Over the weekend, long lines were reported at various early voting sites – including neighborhood libraries, grocery stores, union halls, and hotel-casino resorts on the Las Vegas strip. On the first day of early voting at the Cardenas Market in east Las Vegas, a line stretched in front of the deli counter, turned a corner past stacks of paper towels, and finally came to a stop at a table with only two volunteers working to check people in.

“I don’t want to criticize the volunteers, but I’ve been in line for 45 minutes and I’ve seen less than 10 people vote,” offered Jimmy Emerson, an entertainer who said he was late for a church meeting. 

A volunteer had to scroll on an iPad through the county’s enormous database of registered voters to confirm a name. Then another volunteer, also equipped with an iPad, had to complete the process by filling out a Google-based form. To speed things up, some voting places abandoned that second step, which they said did not affect the integrity of the process.

As one voter finished up at the supermarket, she shook her head and muttered that she should have gone to the union voting place. Indeed, the powerful Culinary Union Local 266 had 14 volunteers checking people in and more volunteers helping with questions about the ballot. 

One campaign staffer who did not want to be named expressed hope that everything will turn out fine in the end, while a staffer from another campaign was skeptical about the last-minute ditching of the Iowa app, as well as the added wrinkle of early voting.

“We are incredibly frustrated by the communication – and lack thereof – from the party,” said this staffer. “We are very concerned about precinct captains being trained at the very last minute and having to learn new math.”

Nevada’s history with caucuses is not exactly encouraging. In 2008, the Nevada State Education Association sued the Democratic Party over at-large precincts that they felt disadvantaged their preferred candidate. In 2012, Republicans in Clark County – home to Las Vegas – had to conduct a time-consuming manual recount. 

In 2016, acrimony exploded as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders decried the Nevada caucus process as rigged. The complaints helped lead to this year’s changes in caucus reporting rules.

Still, “I can see something like the Nevada caucuses surviving” if they can make the new hybrid work, says Rebecca Gill, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Caucus day satisfies the activists who are passionate about the process and makes for a major media event. At the same time, the early voting allows many more people to participate.

Ms. Cole, the state’s rural county caucus chair, says switching back to a primary is not as simple as it might sound. For one thing, the state legislature would have to change the law. Republicans pushed for a primary in 2014 and failed. And then there’s the much bigger question of what might happen to Nevada’s place in the primary calendar. “My main question is, will Nevada lose its standing in the country?” she asks.

“We were way down the list previously, and for us to be No. 3 has made it so that now the pundits are saying we should be No. 1,” former Senator Reid told reporters on Saturday. “When we finish with Super Tuesday, we’ll revisit that issue as to whether we should have caucuses or direct primaries.”

By the end of this weekend, that answer could be abundantly clear.

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