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Days later, Nevada caucus problems still criticized

At least it wasn't a dark and stormy night: Both Republicans and Democrats in Nevada complained of long lines, excessive wait times, overwhelmed volunteers, and other tempestuous symptoms of massive turnout during their parties’ respective caucuses this week.

Republican voters who arrived at Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas just after the 5 p.m. scheduled opening time encountered a line that took more than an hour to process through the door. Caucus-goers also complained about sites running out of ballots.

“We ran out of ballots at our table, so I went over and found someone to let them know,” Republican caucus attendee Jessi Bridges of Las Vegas said.

Bridges said the volunteer she spoke with indicated that the entire site had run out of ballots but that there were more on the way. “They did arrive pretty quickly,” Bridges added.

Democratic voters had similar complaints. A Think Progress story entitled “The Nevada Caucus Was a Nightmare” documented various problems at the Nevada Democratic Party’s Feb. 20 caucus. One precinct captain quoted in the article described the scene at her site as “total chaos.” Some voters waited in line for more than two hours, and several delegate elections were decided by drawing cards from a deck.

GOP officials cited high turnout for some of the issues their caucus-goers faced. Turnout at the 2016 Republican caucus nearly exceeded the combined total for the GOP’s 2008 and 2012 caucuses. More Democrats than Republicans turned out to caucus in 2016, though nearly 30 per cent fewer Democrats participated this year than in the party’s last competitive caucus in 2008.

Caucuses in the state typically draw roughly the same level of participation as less prominent elections, and this cycle’s were no different.

Fewer than 18 per cent of each party’s voters participated in the 2016 caucuses. By contrast, more than 19 per cent of registered voters in Nevada voted in the 2014 state primary, a turnout level that was considered sparse even for an off-year primary election.

Critics of the caucus process say it reduces turnout and disenfranchises large numbers of voters. Nevadans themselves remain more accustomed to ordinary primaries, which they hold in June for offices other than president.

“That is especially true in Nevada, where you have two weeks of early voting preceding election day,” said UNLV Associate Professor of Political Science David Damore in an interview this week.

“At the same time, when they are done well, caucuses can be a tremendous party-building activity that allows parties to organize down to the precinct level, increase enthusiasm among their core supporters who get to have a role in the process, and begin the process of mobilizing and engaging voters early in the process in a way that primaries do not,” Damore said.

He said the Nevada Democrats’ same-day voter registration rule allowed them to sign up 14,000  Democrats on caucus day. The Nevada Republican Party requires voters to be registered Republican 10 days before the caucus to participate.

Caucuses can vary as to rules because they are run and paid for by state political parties, not by taxpayers. Each party sets its registration and eligibility rules, chooses caucus locations, and trains and utilizes its own volunteers to run the caucuses.

Democrats in Nevada followed a traditional caucus model, in which participants attended a meeting and listened to speeches from candidates’ surrogates in addition to indicating their own candidate preference, a process that can take hours. In Clark and Washoe counties, the Republicans allowed voters who preferred not to participate in the other elements of the caucus meeting to check in, cast their votes, and leave.

During the Tuesday night Republican caucus, attendees took to social media to complain of volunteers collecting and counting ballots while wearing shirts and hats supporting candidates on the ballot. In contrast to elections run by the state or by municipalities, campaign signs, clothing, buttons and other expressions of support for a candidate are permitted at caucus sites.

The words “Printing generously donated by Fiore for Congress” appeared at the bottom of Republican ballots in Clark County. The county's Republican Party acknowledged that Congressional candidate Michelle Fiore’s campaign had covered ballot-printing costs.

In at least one regard, caucus chaos began days before the caucuses themselves.

The differing registration dates for eligibility for each party’s caucus created the possibility of a voter participating in both. When the College Republicans at the University of Nevada-Reno circulated a letter encouraging their members to exploit this loophole and vote in both caucuses, Democrats threatened to report anyone who was caught participating in both caucuses to law enforcement for possible prosecution.

With low turnout “on par with a municipal election,” Damore said caucuses are “reflective of both parties’ activist bases” and not of the broader electorate.

“But typically, primaries are not either, particularly when they are closed like in Nevada.”