The downside of caucuses
Nevada is not Iowa, especially when it comes to choosing a president. Iowa has a 46-year history of holding successful caucuses for presidential candidates as the first contest in the nation. The Iowa caucus receives an oversized portion of national attention for its sophisticated and localized method of involving the citizenry, which is 98 percent white, in the process.
Nevada also has a caucus system, but until we moved up to the third state that votes (after Iowa and New Hampshire), only die-hard party activists participated. Nevada’s urban population is diverse and mobile, but our state has virtually no tradition of meeting in small caucuses to respectfully debate the merits of presidential candidates. In 2008, our early voting position made us instantly more attractive to would-be presidential candidates, and they courted us assiduously. Candidate visits and rallies were fun and exciting. And it made sense to include a Western state with a diverse population in the early months of presidential campaigns.
What made no sense at all was the caucus itself. The national spotlight revealed an embarrassing, disenfranchising and contentious process that caused frustration and ire to the point of rebellion.
At my own caucus, there has been no organized, civil discussion about the merits of the candidates. There has been plenty of chaos and confusion though. I’ve watched as dozens of people stormed out of overcrowded rooms, angrily saying they’d never participate again. I’ve seen hand-in-the-air voting, counted haphazardly by an operative who clearly had a preferred outcome in mind, as evidenced by her candidate shirt. I’ve heard the complaints, and I can validate them.
Nevada is not Nebraska either. On Dec. 8, the Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee voted overwhelmingly to return to a primary system, reversing a decision in 2008 to use an earlier caucus to have more influence in the nomination process. Nevadans can empathize with their reasons, which included angry voters being turned away when they arrived a few minutes late, neighborhoods choked with cars, and a survey that showed Democratic Party members supported a return to a primary by a three-to-one margin.
According to an article in the Nevada Current, even the Democratic National Committee, an entity not known for its forward thinking, recommended Nevada dump the frustrating and antiquated caucus system for a primary. In early December, the DNC approved reforms to its presidential nomination process to try and “grow the party, increase participation, and rebuild trust with voters after the contentious presidential primaries in 2016,” advocating government-run primaries instead of caucuses. If state parties continue to use caucuses, the DNC-mandated reforms to make them “more inclusive, transparent, and accessible to participants,” citing the need to accommodate shift workers, those in the military, seniors, people with disabilities, parents of young children and others who could not attend a caucus.
But Nevada’s Democratic leaders and behind-the-scenes strategists chose the flawed and frustrating caucus system instead, valuing Nevada’s national profile above voter participation. They committed to expanding access but still cherish Nevada’s third position, ensuring that presidential candidates pay attention to us.
These leaders risk further alienation of their party members and less enthusiasm for political involvement of all age groups by clinging to a caucus. It’s a given that fewer people will participate. According to the Center for Politics, in the eight states where both parties use caucuses instead of primaries, 11.3 percent of registered voters participate, compared to primary states where 36.1 percent of voters cast a ballot.
Nevada is trading visits from candidates and their surrogates and a little national attention—remember, we are not Iowa—for less voter participation and a deepening distrust of a party system controlled by insiders. Maybe staying home on caucus day will convince them we deserve better.