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August 22, 2017

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Nevada flirts with primaries while maligned caucus system prevails

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Steve Marcus

Caucus-goers check in with their precinct tables at the Western High School GOP caucus site Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Long lines and frustrated voters that accompanied Nevada caucuses in 2016 were not enough to sway lawmakers toward a primary system.

Legislative efforts from both parties to return to presidential primaries have failed to gain traction over the years, with the most recent failed push marked by concerns that Nevada would lose political prominence nationally.

UNLV political science professor Michael W. Bowers, who took part in the 2016 caucuses, says it was a confused atmosphere for everyone. Volunteers struggled to handle the heavy turnout brought on by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., he said.

Bowers said the primary system would give more people the opportunity to participate and increase voter turnout. State elections officials would likely be better trained to run the primary, and the process would give more voting time to people who work or have religious obligations, such as Sabbath on Saturday.

“The process is substantially smoother and better run as a primary rather than a caucus,” Bowers said. “This has the concurrent advantage of, I think, making people more confident in the results.”

Assembly Bill 293 would have given state parties the option of using the primary system rather than caucuses and would have allowed same-day voter registration, which raised logistical concerns from elections officials. Senate Bill 211 was similar, and both measures failed to move beyond the Legislature’s first committee passage deadline.

Democrats were largely behind these recent measures, and similar legislation in 2015 was supported by Republicans.

Cost

The use of public money is one of the barriers to ditching caucuses. The state would pay for primaries, while parties pick up the cost of caucuses. Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, was one of the sponsors of AB293, and said that while money was a concern, a smooth process was also important.

“The fact is we get all that national attention, we want to show the country that we can do this right,” Segerblom said.

He also said it can be difficult for parties to run the process every four years.

“It’d be one thing if we had a caucus every year,” Segerblom said. “We’d have the process established. It’s tough to create something from the ground up that quickly with that number of people.”

Bowers said competitiveness is key when it comes to cost. Primaries with a sure winner might not be the best use of public funds, such as when former President Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984 and former President Barack Obama ran for reelection in 2012.

The state budgeted $200,000 but paid $550,000 for the GOP’s primary in 1976, with 51 percent turnout. Caucuses have been mostly conducted since then, but Bowers said he suspects attitudes may be changing.

“Both the Democratic and Republican caucuses were messy in 2016 and many people were alienated by what is, admittedly, an odd process,” Bowers said. “People are much more accustomed to the idea of an election where they can cast votes anonymously at a government-sanctioned polling place.”

He said he’s disappointed that the Legislature didn’t move the legislation forward this year and allow a switch to a more convenient and efficient process that will draw more voters.

“I've never heard anyone who had a pleasant experience at the caucuses,” Bowers said.

“First in the West”

Nevada has been the first state in the West to have a major impact on the presidential preference process ahead of Super Tuesday, when most states let voters choose their candidates.

AB293 received a committee hearing in March, when the possibility of primaries pushing Nevada later in the presidential preference process was discussed.

After noting that many of his constituents have faced challenges in participating in caucuses, Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, asked whether the change would impact Nevada’s first in the West status. Assemblyman Nelson Araujo, D-Las Vegas, was presenting the bill to members of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, and said the bill gives parties the ability to choose.

“I love our status as a state, I love the fact that we are at the forefront of the dialogue when it comes to being the strong voice in electing the person that’s going to represent us in the general election on both sides of the aisle,” Araujo said at the time. “That conversation still has to take place. However, having this option would just allow us to have something else on the menu when exploring the opportunities that may exist for us.”

As one of the bill’s sponsors, Segerblom said he did not want to see Nevada lose its impact on the election process.

“I wouldn’t want our changing from the caucus system to a primary to affect that status,” Segerblom said. “Otherwise, I think everyone agrees that it’s very difficult for our state party to put on a caucus every four years with the kind of national attention that we get.”

Standstill

Failed legislation means the caucus system is sticking in Nevada, at least for now. Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, said the issue has a rural-urban divide, with more densely populated communities more likely to support primaries.

Anderson said the switch to caucuses was strategic to get earlier in the process, and this was probably a barrier to this recent legislative effort. He said his position is the same as it was last time around, in 2015.

“There was just a conflict between Republicans and the Democrats, depending upon who you talk to,” he said. “It was right up to the last minute, we tried to still get the primary bill passed.”

Anderson said he hopes the issue comes up again.

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