The Democratic caucuses in Nevada scheduled for February 22 are historically and structurally the stepchild of the Iowa caucuses. They were first inaugurated in the 2008 presidential cycle, as part of reforms that moved more-diverse Nevada and South Carolina into the charmed circle of privileged “early states” along with the famously honkified Iowa and New Hampshire.
To a considerable extent, the Nevada caucuses were modeled on Iowa’s. They represent a party-sponsored, volunteer-heavy event where participants in close to 2,000 precincts go through two rounds of “alignments” to group themselves around candidates who can meet a viability threshold of 15 percent of total attendance in any one place. Like Iowa, Nevada is facing new demands from the national party that it report raw votes instead of just delegates. Like Iowa, Nevada initially tried to show a willingness to expand participation via “virtual caucuses” operating on phones, until the DNC shot the scheme down on security grounds. And like Iowa, Nevada planned initially to use a cool new app by which precinct results could be reported to the state party.
Well, this last “innovation” has since been canceled for obvious reasons. But fears are spreading rapidly that this year’s chaos in Iowa could be replicated in Nevada like so much else has been. Some of the concerns involve residual technology dependence and the difficultly of retraining volunteers who thought they’d be using the discarded app, as U.S. News reports:
Concerns have been growing that next week’s Nevada caucuses could offer a repeat of the chaos that ensnared the Iowa vote, with Nevada facing many of the same organizational and technical challenges that crippled Iowa’s process.
Volunteers who will be leading the Feb. 22 caucuses said key information had yet to be shared. There has been no hands-on training with iPads being deployed to caucus sites on Election Day nor opportunities to try out a new “tool” that will be loaded onto the iPads and used during the caucus process …
In training sessions in recent days, Nevada Democrats told precinct leaders they will be using an iPad they will receive the day of the caucuses. Seth Morrison, a site leader who will oversee multiple precincts at a caucus site in the metro Las Vegas area, said he was told he would be trained on the iPads when he picks them up a few days before the caucuses and would be responsible for showing precinct leaders how to use them.
This is not overwhelmingly reassuring. And complicating the picture is the fact that Nevada is attempting one very tricky thing that Iowa didn’t, and that it hasn’t done previously: providing an opportunity for “early caucusing.”
As I recently explained, the new system basically allows voters to list by rank at least three and as many as five preferred candidates on ballots that will be merged into the original alignment and realignments at the traditional caucuses:
[I]n effect, Nevada will be utilizing ranked-choice voting for those participating before the traditional caucuses occur. Their votes will be sent to their home precincts, with their first and second candidate preferences (or third, fourth, or fifth if earlier preferences aren’t “viable” after the first round) treated as though they were being expressed on-site along with the regular caucusgoers. As in most Iowa precincts, 15 percent is the viability threshold in the Nevada caucuses.
As Jennifer Medina observes, the app that has since been discarded was supposed to automate the process of translating these ranked-choice early ballots into the alignment system. It’s unclear how well it’s going to work now:
The challenge is what to do with the early caucus numbers once they have been tallied. The now-discarded app was supposed to make it easy, and officials are still struggling with how they will transmit the results of the early caucus sites to precinct captains on caucus day.
Medina is hearing some scary echoes of the Iowa mess:
“The people in charge have no idea what they’re doing,” said Gregory Miller, the executive director of OSET, an election technology nonprofit research group. “They don’t know what to do and the days are numbered. All of this should have been locked and loaded a long time ago.”
Nevada Democrats do have a few things going for them: the warning Iowa’s reporting crisis gave them, and some proactive help from the DNC, which would prefer that the entire presidential nominating process not melt down over the inability of volunteers to calculate and report results. But the campaigns working in Nevada are clearly nervous, and state party officials are being unsettlingly closemouthed. One caucus-site volunteer overseer, Seth Morrison, told U.S. News he was freaking out:
“They’ve been saying basically, ‘Don’t worry. Trust us,’” said Morrison. “I’ve been hyperventilating for the last five days.”
Two other caucus organizers expressed similar concerns over the lack of information and training but spoke on condition of anonymity so they could discuss the issue candidly.
Ironically, the pol who really pushed Nevada to adopt an early caucus event, former U.S. senator Harry Reid, has been trying to exploit the Iowa mess to place his own state caucuses at the front of the line, as in this interview with Vice News:
“Since the debacle in Iowa, [pundits] have been talking about Nevada should be the first state. Why? Because we’re a state that’s heavily diverse,” [Reid] said. “It’s really a state that represents what the country is all about. So I think that Iowa really was an embarrassment to everybody.”
That argument isn’t going to work if Nevada can’t get its own act together on February 22. And even if it’s not a disaster, the accumulated jitters of this political season are probably going to ensure that caucuses are abandoned entirely in the 2024 cycle in favor of government-run and taxpayer-financed primaries.