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May 25, 2015

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Slow count doesn’t win friends for GOP caucus

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Paul Takahashi

Clark County Republican Party officials and voters count ballots during a special “sundown” caucus at the Adelson Educational Campus that capped off the Nevada GOP presidential caucuses on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012.

Searchlight Republican Caucus

Roy L. Phillips, left, of Cal-Nev-Ari, signs-in for a Republican caucus at a community center in Searchlight Saturday, February 4, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Romney Wins Nevada

Surrounded by U.S. secret service agents, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters at the Nevada Republican caucus Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, at the Red Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

GOP Caucus in Clark County

John Metzguer, center, and Leroy King, right, both of Henderson, sign in for the Republican presidential caucus at Green Valley High School in Henderson on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Nevada Caucus Count

Volunteers count and record caucus totals at Clark County GOP headquarters Sunday morning. Launch slideshow »

Special Evening Caucus at the Adelson School

Clark County Republican Party officials and voters count ballots during a special Launch slideshow »

Gingrich Comes in Second

Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during a news conference after the Nevada caucus at the Venetian Saturday, February 4, 2012 Launch slideshow »

A painstakingly slow hand count of Clark County’s presidential caucus vote delayed final results by more than a day, prompting accusations of fraud and conspiracy from supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, doubts from national Republicans about Nevada’s ability to run a caucus and derision from national political observers, who called for Nevada’s status as an early caucus state to be summarily yanked.

While no evidence of fraud was uncovered, the prolonged count capped a caucus marked by disorganization, bickering and bumbling at nearly every turn.

By the time Clark County finished counting, the vote had long been tallied in the rest of the state, a victory had been declared (Mitt Romney) and the candidates had given their speeches and left the state. Only their lawyers stayed behind to monitor the count.

“We are going to get this right,” Clark County Chairman David Gibbs said early Sunday morning. “If it takes us a little bit of time to get it right, we are going to take the time.”

Clark County Republican volunteers were tasked with the tedious process of counting each ballot in 1,075 precincts and matching the total with the number of voters who had signed in at each caucus site. Volunteers worked from Saturday afternoon until 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning, returning at 9 a.m. and working until the job was done Sunday night.

In a handful of precincts, the ballot tally didn’t match the sign-in tally. Dealing with the discrepancies slowed and confused the process. Some precincts were off by one vote because precinct captains forgot to sign in.

For the most part, campaigns did not dispute precincts where the discrepancies involved fewer than 5 votes.

Other precincts had greater discrepancies. Party officials said they would confer with campaign lawyers about how to deal with those precincts. One possibility included tossing them out completely.

Counters put all disputed precincts — about 200 — into one “trouble box,” which was the focus of the count Sunday night. The precincts were discussed by a council of counters, Clark County GOP officials and campaign representatives -- one per candidate.

Sun City Anthem proved to be one the most difficult caucus location to sort out.

“For some reason, they just threw scraps of paper in. And then some of these are homemade,” Clark County Chairman David Gibbs said.

The disputed ballots did not cast any doubt on Romney’s win. He took the state by almost 10,000 votes. But because Nevada’s national delegates are awarded in proportion to the number of votes won by each candidate, the second- and third-place tallies were significant.

Gingrich edged out Paul for the second-place finish after a straight day and a half of ballot-counting, taking 21.1 percent of the vote to Paul’s 18.8 percent. Romney’s fate also changed with the Clark County GOP recount: The totals put him over 50 percent, giving him his strongest-yet first-place finish of the campaign.

That means Romney will be taking 14 Nevada delegates to the convention, while Gingrich will be awarded 6 and Paul 5. Santorum, who pulled 10 percent of the statewide vote, will receive 3.

The process that began so bitterly ended rather smoothly: Counters threw out less than 20 ballots in the end, including 10 for Romney in an unsigned, unsealed envelope.

“Our goal was not to disenfranchise voters,” Gibbs said. “Unless we saw something that was obviously odd, we counted it.”

But all that ends well isn’t necessarily well for the future of the Clark County’s GOP’s caucuses.

The fiasco was reminiscent of the 2008 Republican state convention, where party officials abruptly ended the state convention after Paul supporters forced a rules change that would have given them a better shot at electing their own delegates to the national convention.

The Clark County count fueled outrage, accusations of fraud, and multiple threats to sue from Paul supporters.

Paul’s campaign staff issued a restrained statement describing the party’s caucus process as “deeply flawed.” But angry accusations flooded in from his supporters around the country.

“Looks to me like the whole process in NV is a mess. I smell a rat,” wrote one supporter on the Clark County GOP’s Facebook page.

At the end of the day, Paul officials said they were content — though a little disappointed in the party.

“It didn’t need to happen this way. With more planning, more process — more space for observers ... people being in close quarters added to the tension,” said Carl Bunce, Paul’s Nevada campaign director. “A couple of changes and you won’t have national staffers breathing down the necks of county people. Cause we’re in different worlds.”

Republican Party officials held a tense meeting with lawyers from each of the presidential campaigns early Sunday. Uneasy campaign officials gave the county party room to continue counting before issuing public comments on the process.

But as the counting stretched past the 24-hour mark, political reporters from around the nation mocked Nevada’s inability to quickly finalize its results.

“The biggest loser in Nevada’s Republican caucuses? The state’s feckless GOP,” wrote Politico.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza tweeted: “Nevada not helping their case to hump further up in calendar with this sloooooow count.”

Even some of the volunteers counting ballots seemed to be aware that Nevada’s political stock was sinking as the count dragged on.

“I have no doubt when we go through all those boxes again we will find stray sign-in sheets here and there,” one volunteer said.

Party officials largely brushed off the criticism, saying they were committed to getting the count right, and stressing it was better to be slow and steady if that meant ultimately avoiding the problems that forced Iowa to reverse the winner of its first-in-the-nation caucus days after it was originally announced.

“We won’t be Iowa!” Nevada GOP officials repeated.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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