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How Do the Nevada Caucuses Work?

Early caucusing in Nevada. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s one of the quirks of the Democratic presidential nominating process that of the four “early states” privileged by the national party calendar to go first while the rest of the country waits to weigh in, two (Iowa and Nevada) of them have party-run caucuses rather than government-run primary elections. In fact, there’s only one other state (Wyoming) that still utilizes caucuses. So once Nevada’s February 22 contest has ended, it’s appropriate to use the term “primary season” for the rest of the road to the July convention in Milwaukee.

Nevada used to have primaries, too, but in 2008 moved to a caucus system that is very much modeled on Iowa’s. So a lot of the distinctions I made in an earlier “explainer” on Iowa apply to the Silver State as well.

What’s the difference between caucuses and a primary?

A presidential primary is generally just like the party primary elections that states hold for every other public office. It’s government-sponsored, using the same or a similar precinct system as general elections. Staffers for the event are paid (however poorly), and voters are asked simply to designate a favorite candidate for the nomination. Yes, in some states (e.g., California and Texas) the presidential primary is held in conjunction with primaries for sub-presidential offices, while in others (e.g., New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida) they are entirely separate events. States by-and-large offer (or restrict) early voting opportunities along the same lines as they provide for other primaries and for general elections. Thus early voting for California’s March 3 primary actually began on the same night as Iowa’s caucuses.

Party-run caucuses do not benefit from taxpayer support; they are staffed by volunteers using party-owned methods for tabulating and reporting results; and at least among Democrats, they are not aimed at simply recording voters’ first choice for the presidency. That’s where it all gets complicated.

Alignments and Realignments

In Nevada as in Iowa, caucusgoers gather at particular times and places, though Nevada’s schedule is more flexible and calls for caucuses earlier in the day (a considerable advantage of holding them on Saturdays). The official start time is 10:00 a.m. local time. And while Nevada doesn’t have a formal system of “satellite caucuses” in nontraditional sites like Iowa’s, it earlier pioneered the establishment of caucus sites in key workplaces like the Las Vegas casinos for the benefit of shift workers.

In all the sites, caucusgoers (voters registered as Democrats, though same-day registration and reregistration to change party affiliation is available at caucus sites themselves) are asked to align themselves into preference groups for presidential candidates. All those groups that don’t represent 15 percent of total votes in any one location are deemed “nonviable,” and members of those can either shrug and go home or join a viable group during a realignment. As in Iowa, precincts will be expected to report to the state party the number of those affiliating with candidates in both the alignment and the realignment. Nevada does not have Iowa’s complex system of State Delegate Equivalents that it reports when the caucuses are completed, but you will probably see estimates of national delegate awards that will be determined at a state convention later.

In terms of how these votes are tabulated, Nevada dropped the use of a new app designed for that purpose when the same piece of technology failed in Iowa. But now Nevada has adopted its own calculating and reporting tool involving iPads and Google Forms, and there are conflicting assessments of how well it’s going to work. Fortunately for Nevada Democrats, they are benefitting from the active assistance of a national party fearful of another Caucus Night meltdown like Iowa’s, which should help with trouble-shooting at both the precinct and state levels. There’s a new and unique feature of Nevada’s process, however, that has many observers worried.

Early Caucusing

Nevada Democrats have decided to experiment this year with “early caucusing.” This isn’t as easy as “early voting” in a primary, since the latter couldn’t provide for a second expression of support equivalent to the realignment of supporters of nonviable candidates in traditional caucuses.

So instead of a simple ballot, early caucusgoers (at a relatively small number of locations and on dates ranging from February 15 through February 18) were offered ballots where they could in ranked order designate between three and five favored candidates. This is, of course, a system identical to the “rank-choice voting” (a.k.a., instant-runoff voting) that a small but increasing number of jurisdictions are using for primary and even general elections. The idea is that these secondary preferences would be combined with live caucus realignments to produce a uniform set of results.

Early caucusing turned out to be very popular. When the window for it closed on February 18, over 70,000 voters had participated in 55 sites. Since total Democratic turnout at the 2016 Caucuses was only 83,000, that would indicate either that total turnout will be sharply higher (perhaps matching or even exceeding the 118,000 who caucused in 2008), or that most caucus-goers decided to exercise the early option. If the latter is the case, then the live caucuses on February 22 (in nearly 2,000 precincts) should be spacious events with plenty of empty chairs.

Caucus-Day Reporting

It’s really the early caucusing that makes it a bit of a mystery how reporting of the vote on February 22 will work out. On the one hand, having a high percentage of the balloting in hand by February 18 gives party officials a lot more time to compile the results before Caucus Day. They may need it. In Maine, the one state that has adopted ranked-choice voting for statewide elections, it took eight full days to calculate the winners of Democratic gubernatorial and congressional contests in 2018. The mechanical process of collating and transmitting ranked-choice ballots from 55 early caucusing sites to the vastly larger number of February 22 sites could be tricky as well. And Nevada Democrats can only hope their new calculating and reporting tool really can seamlessly blend the early caucus ranked-choice preferences with live alignments and realignments. They profess a lot of self-confidence that it will all unfold with only minor glitches, particularly since they have the benefit of watching and avoiding the mistakes made in Iowa with respect to back-up reporting contingencies. But we won’t now for sure until Saturday, as the New York Times reports:

Five cybersecurity experts contacted by The New York Times said they believed that, like the state Democratic Party in Iowa, Nevada officials waited too long to build a system to tally and transmit caucus results. The experts recommend testing a system for several months leading up to an important electoral contest, to ensure that any bugs are worked out. Problems as anodyne as a bad internet connection or poor cell service can leave technical systems in shambles, according to the experts.

“When you scale up something that has never been used before there are lots of little things that can go wrong that need be quickly corrected,” said Matt Blaze, an election security expert who teaches computer science at Georgetown University. “It is important to have people with technical expertise on the ground on the day of, but there are also things you can’t foresee.”

There will be much anxiety in Nevada and elsewhere as the results (we all hope) roll in on Saturday. In all likelihood the mess in Iowa will lead the national party to kill off presidential caucusing once and for all in future cycles. But Democrats everywhere could do without two of the three initial nomination contests going haywire.

How Do the Nevada Caucuses Work?