Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 | 2 a.m.
It’s Feb. 20, 2016, the day of the Nevada caucuses that year, and anger has bubbled over in the gym at Del Webb Middle School.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders wander through the crowd, shouting that caucus staffers are violating the rules to favor Hillary Clinton. Waving copies of the rulebook, they confront Democratic Party representatives. Occasionally an onlooker joins in, and arguments ensue over interpretations of the rules.
The event ends peacefully, but the Webb gym proves to be a microcosm: Similar flare-ups happen elsewhere. Later, the tensions flash over again at the state Democratic Party convention, becoming so heated that security shuts down the event.
Fast-forward five years, and Nevada lawmakers are preparing to consider a bill that would scrap the often messy caucuses in favor of a traditional primary.
Amen to that.
Although Nevada Democrats adopted rules changes after 2016 that led to much smoother caucusing last year, and state Republicans canceled their own caucuses in favor of supporting Donald Trump, the archaic process remains a lousy way to choose candidates in the 21st century. Unlike in traditional voting, caucuses are decided by people physically standing in spots designated for various candidates. From there, a confusing formula is used to determine the awarding of delegates who will vote on the nomination in the party convention. In the case of ties, an even more confusing formula is employed.
The process can and does work, and advocates argue that it strengthens the democratic process by encouraging person-to-person conversations among voters about the attributes of the candidates.
But caucusing can be highly problematic, as we well know in Nevada.
Snafus involving procedures and counts in 2016 prompted seven states to junk their caucuses in favor of some form of primary in 2020. Then came the virtual Iowa caucuses last year, a catastrophe of technological problems, a long delay in the reporting of results, and disputes over the outcome.
But beyond those types of problems, caucusing has a more fundamental flaw: It introduces peer pressure and intimidation into the selection process, replacing the inherent democracy of a secret vote. As a result, it provides a way of maintaining power for a small group of people using coercion to bend dissident voters to their will.
The setup of caucusing allows the loudest, most aggressive and most intimidating voices to push their candidates through the process. That’s a corruption of the ideal of democracy, and it doesn’t just occur in theory.
For instance, the caucus experience is notoriously uncomfortable among ethnic minority voters, leading to suppression of minority votes during candidate selection. Meanwhile, caucusing has been a powerful force in manipulating women voters since the advent of the 19th Amendment, with male party leaders pressuring women to line up with men’s selections. It also provides a framework for older voters to intimidate younger ones to maintain traditional power.
In today’s society, especially in the Republican Party, caucusing is potentially dangerous. Just look at how the party turned on those who failed to give full loyalty to Trump — i.e., the “Hang Mike Pence!” chant during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Now imagine being a GOP caucusgoer who opposes the MAGA mob at a school gym. Would you feel safe? Do you think democracy would be well-served?
Consider too that Congress, which by design is essentially a caucus so that voters can see who votes for what, went to a secret ballot when it came time to vote on whether to remove Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her leadership role. Why? Because Republicans were afraid of their own mob and wanted to remove intimidation from the process.
Given that congressional leaders admit to fearing pressure tactics despite being very powerful people, why shouldn’t we remove intimidation and pressure tactics from voters simply selecting candidates for their party’s ticket?
The caucus is simply a relic of control and suppression of viewpoints that has no place in the modern world.
Nevadans have already shown that they support a change to primaries. When the Nevada State Democratic Party created a four-day early-voting period last year as a pandemic safety measure, nearly 75,000 voters cast early ballots as opposed to participating in the day-of caucusing. That translated to about 70% of the total participation, showing that voters overwhelmingly preferred simply casting a ballot to showing up and standing around.
It’s time to retire caucusing. Nevada legislators would serve voters well in passing the bill to switch to primaries.
Meanwhile, political leaders both in Carson City and outside the Statehouse, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are pushing for Nevada to become the first primary in the nation.
That’s a highly worthwhile effort, which not only would bring prestige to Nevada but would be entirely appropriate to the political process. With the rich diversity of our population, Nevada is a much better indicator of a candidate’s support than Iowa or New Hampshire, whose populations are predominantly white. That’s important, as the fortunes of candidates turn heavily on the early results.
Currently, Nevada holds “first in the West” status by being staged third, just after Iowa and New Hampshire.
Establishing our place on the electoral calendar is a lot more tricky than adopting a primary process, of course. It will require negotiations with national parties, and we can’t prevent other states from trying to choose their own dates. But we applaud the leadership for making the effort, and we give them our full support.
Maybe during the primary season in 2024, Nevada will be the first stop in the selection process. But regardless of where we land in the order, we should choose our nominees through a primary and not a caucus.