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January 18, 2018

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Caucus vs. Primary: What’s best for Nevada?


Steve Marcus

Voters look for their precincts on a map during the Republican presidential caucus at Green Valley High School in Henderson Saturday, January 19, 2008.

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Primaries offer a clean, quick transaction. Enter a voting booth, press a couple of buttons and you’re done.

Caucuses are more like a Tupperware party from hell: They require party members from a given precinct to meet and debate the merits of each candidate, participate in a poll to reflect the group’s favored would-be presidents and then choose delegates who head to county conventions, where the nominating process continues.

Caucusing is even more troublesome in Nevada, which because it’s new to the process lacks a strong caucus tradition like Iowa.

Critics say the confusion will only be amplified this year, as the Nevada Republican Party is allowing each county to set the rules for their caucuses, creating a patchwork of contests with different start times and rules.

The confusion this will inevitably create is raising concerns that voters will be disenfranchised and could sue. Presidential campaigns, too, could claim they’ve been disadvantaged by the squirrelly rules and find ways to take the issue to court.

“It’s a cluster. People are going to get sued. It’s going to be chaos,” said one Republican who is organizing the caucuses but didn’t want to be on record criticizing the state party.

Counties are taking widely different approaches to their caucus rules.

In Carson City, for example, the party will open voting for most of the day, trying for something closer to a primary election than a caucus. Carson Republicans won’t have to join the meetings in their precincts to listen to candidate speeches or elect delegates.

“We are referring to it as a vote-and-go,” said Maurice White, first vice chairman of the Carson City Republican Party. “There are a lot of people in this town who are opposed to the caucus, for one. And secondly, they don’t really understand the caucus. We want this to be open to everybody who is eligible to vote, so this is how we are going to do it.”

For uniformity’s sake, the state party had recommended caucuses begin at 9 a.m. and be wrapped up by noon. Some counties — Washoe, for example — are complying with that request.

But Clark County Republicans, worried about crowded voting sites, want to institute staggered start times. That means voters need to know not only their precinct number and location, but at what time their precinct gets to vote.

“What happens if you show up at noon and people are voting but you’re told, ‘Oh, no, sorry, you were supposed to vote at 9?’” one Republican critic said. “People are going to be outraged.”

The differing start times also make it difficult for the state party to publicize the caucus and educate voters.

But Clark County Chairman David Gibbs said staggered start times are the best way to deal with crowds and limited space. Four years ago, Republicans were ill prepared for the onslaught of caucusgoers, many of whom had to stand in long lines.

Gibbs said he prefers the staggered start times to the expense of renting more locations.

“The more locations you have, the more the cost increases,” he said. “We have to pay insurance and janitorial services for the schools we use. Since this is paid for by the political parties, we have to come up with the money to fund it.”

Some county chairmans are blaming the state party for a lack of leadership, funding and organization.

The state GOP has faced one hurdle after another during the past four years, including a dearth of funds, repeated leadership vacuums (its last leader decided to run for office before stepping down) and cynicism over how the last state convention was handled by party leaders.

But the state party is working to both educate voters and organize the caucuses. It hired a caucus director as well as a firm with experience running the Iowa caucuses to help organize the event.

State party officials are working with Clark County Republicans to find a way to avoid staggered start times by finding more locations.

But the potential confusion tied to the process has renewed calls for the state to ditch the caucus process in favor of a primary election.

“The caucus disenfranchises anybody who can’t be there,” said Robin Titus, chairwoman of the Lyon County Republican Party. “A primary enables everybody to participate, and maybe that’s what we should go back to in Nevada.”

The voter confusion, overcrowded caucus sites and general chaos that marred the Republican caucuses four years ago prompted calls for a primary.

Those calls were rejected by state lawmakers, who said it would be too expensive for the state to hold a primary.

But the party might have to go to court to defend its process.

Four years ago, Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in Nevada sued to prevent the party from holding at-large caucuses on the Strip. The at-large caucuses were seen as advantageous to Barack Obama, who had the backing of the powerful Culinary Union.

If the open voting in Carson City is viewed as providing an advantage of any particular candidate, those who support his opponent could sue.

Campaign spokesmen for Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the only candidates with organizations in Nevada, said it’s unlikely either campaign would sue.

Carl Bunce, Ron Paul’s Nevada director, said the campaign isn’t worried about the varied caucus rules, saying it is organized to ensure Paul’s supporters make it to the caucus regardless of the differences among counties.

Indeed, confusion could be an advantage for campaigns that have done the best job identifying supporters and educating them on how to caucus — a definite strength of the Paul campaign.

Bunce questioned the effectiveness of a lawsuit even if the complaints are legitimate.

Paul supporters sued in 2008 over how the Nevada GOP conducted its state convention. A judge ruled that caucuses are events conducted by political parties and not subject to most voting-rights laws.

“We’ve already been through this,” Bunce said. “We wasted $70,000 suing the state party. It’s pointless.”

Ryan Erwin, Romney’s Nevada consultant, said the campaign is working to ensure the caucus runs as smoothly as possible.

“We are expecting it to be well done and at least as well organized as it was four years ago,” Erwin said. “We are in favor of making it as easy and convenient and low maintenance as possible for voters. Hopefully it will be easy for voters to figure out where and when to go.”

But Erwin, expressing his personal opinion as a longtime Republican operative in Nevada, said the future success of the caucuses depends on the integrity of the outcome.

“If the campaigns know what to expect and the counties know what to expect and everybody involved knows what to expect, you’ll have a far smoother outcome,” he said. “We need to have 17 counties operating on the same rules rather than everybody learning on the fly and making up rules on the fly. Whether that’s possible in 2012 is questionable.”

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