The Nevada caucuses are, of course, party-operated events. When The Fix reached out to the the Nevada secretary of state this week in search of guidelines and standards that each party must meet in order to facilitate voter participation, the agency referred all questions back to the states' Democratic and Republican parties. The only problem is that caucuses in Nevada don't exactly have a reputation for amounting to orderly affairs.
In 2008, one GOP county chairman admitted that data errors directed some voters to the wrong caucus locations. There were scenes at some Republican caucuses that included locked-out voters quite literally banging on doors in hopes of participating in the democratic process. In 2012, at the Republican National Convention, some of the state delegates selected during the caucuses rejected the candidate collectively selected by Nevada Republicans that year -- Mitt Romney -- and put their support behind Sen. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).
By comparison, The Fix's on-team Nevada political expert, Amber Philips, tells us that the Democratic caucuses are regarded as relatively organized, logistical successes.
But this weekend, even the Democrats struggled. There were reports of long lines, very long waits and caucus sites where no neutral interpreters were pre-arranged despite a federal requirement that all election activity in some parts of the state, such as Las Vegas, make language assistance and materials in languages other than English available to voters who need them.
So with the Democratic Party's caucuses done and the Republican equivalent set to begin in just a few hours, The Fix turned to a pair of Nevada election and political experts for information about what's very wrong and what is just about right abut this process. What follows has been edited only for clarity and length.
Michael W. Bowers is a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) with particular expertise in law. In 1996, Bowers published "The Sagebrush State," a book considered so definitive in its exploration of the history of Nevada government and politics that is still used in classrooms throughout the state and was a fourth edition published in 2013. Bowers is not connected to any of the presidential campaigns, but is a registered Democrat who participated in that party's caucus on Saturday.
Ted G. Jelen is professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). His areas of expertise include public opinion and the relationship between religion and politics. He was active in the McGovern campaign in 1972, participated in the Nevada Democratic Party's caucuses Saturday as a voter and and will be a Clinton delegate to the Democratic County Caucus in April. Jelen has published multiple books including "To Serve God and Mammon: Church State Relations in American Politics," and "The Political Mobilization of Religious Beliefs."
THE FIX: This may seem an extremely simplistic question, given the Nevada caucuses aren’t really a long-running tradition. They began in 2008. Can you help our readers to understand the rationale for using caucuses instead of primaries?
BOWERS: Actually, caucuses have been used in the state for years. The use of primaries is a sometime thing here. In part, the primaries have faded away due to the expense associated with them. Also, it seems that whenever the parties have decided to have a primary, there ended up not being much competition among candidates and the expense was seen as wasteful.
JELEN: Caucuses reward political activists, and citizens willing to devote substantial time and energy to the process. Caucuses discourage participation by citizens who are more casually interested in politics.
THE FIX: Just to establish some basic background here, given the way that primaries versus caucuses work, are there reasons to be fundamentally concerned about the move to a caucus process from a voter participation standpoint?
BOWERS: Clearly, primaries are going to bring out more voters. Not only is there less time commitment, but voters have a broader window in which they can vote (i.e. from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., as opposed to being at a particular location at noon [to caucus]). The caucus system is not ideal for encouraging participation, and a primary would be more inclusive. A Saturday caucus [in Nevada] is particularly worrisome considering that large numbers of Democrats work in the hospitality industry and the weekends are the busiest time for them.
JELEN: The costs of caucus participation in terms of time and energy are quite high. However, at least on the Democratic side, this did not seem to impose practical limits on the willingness of women, Latinos, and African Americans to participate.
THE FIX: What did you make of the way that the Nevada Democratic Party's caucus functioned on Saturday? Was there anything that happened that you think is worth noting? And, as a result of what happened Saturday, is there anything that you will be watching closely in the Republican Party’s caucuses Tuesday?
BOWERS: The Democratic caucuses on Saturday were not a disaster as some have said, but they were not especially well-organized. This is primarily a result of the fact that they rely upon volunteers who have had various levels of training. In addition, the party did not anticipate the large numbers of participants. I find this rather odd given that anyone keeping up with current events knew that this was going to be heavily attended given the get out the vote efforts of both candidates.
JELEN: Democratic caucuses seemed to take a long time (I was there for over three hours). GOP caucuses seem much more straightforward, and easier to participate (just casting ballots during a tight time frame). I’ll be watching the turnout [Tuesday, during the Republican Party's caucus]. A very high turnout would probably benefit Trump, but Democratic turnout was relatively light (to HRC’s [Hillary Rodham Clinton's] apparent advantage).
THE FIX: On Saturday, there were some reports of very long lines at Democratic Party caucus sites, making it harder for shift workers to get in and participate. And, then, of course, there was that now-infamous incident regarding the need for an interpreter at a Las Vegas casino caucus site. What did the Democrats need to do differently? What should the Republicans be checking on or making sure of right now if maximum participation in the caucus is the goal?
BOWERS: We will see tonight, but I think the Republicans have the right idea in running the caucus as a quasi-primary. That is, voters need only show up and cast a ballot. The Democrats might want to take this as a lesson for the future and to ensure greater turnout.
JELEN: Democrats need to streamline [the] process of checking in. [The] Main bottleneck was at entrance.
THE FIX: Is Nevada a state with any particular rules or laws governing voting that may fundamentally limit participation, such as a particularly strict Voter ID law, short early-voting timelines in the general election or a particularly long lead time for registration?
BOWERS: Nevada does not have strict rules that would discourage voting. The registration deadlines are reasonable and there is plenty of time for early voting. Anyone can cast an absentee ballot. Some in the legislature have attempted to make it more difficult to vote but those attempts have failed.
JELEN: Quite the contrary; Nevada makes it easy to vote and has had relatively long periods of early voting. Party registration is occasionally a deterrent to less-sophisticated voters.
THE FIX: Much has been made of the same-day voter registration option available to Democrats who wanted to participate in the Saturday caucuses. Some claimed that Republicans would use this procedure to register as Democrats, participate in that party's caucus and then help to advance a less viable Democratic candidate's campaign. Have you seen any evidence that it boosted turnout Saturday or made room for Republican voter shenanigans?
BOWERS: There do not appear to have been any Republican shenanigans, but it does appear that thousands of new Democrats were registered. This will likely work to the advantage of the Democrats in November.
JELEN: Again, this is less likely to be a problem in a caucus state. Most people willing to devote the time and energy necessary to participate in caucuses are already registered. At my own caucus on Saturday, [I] only saw two to three people register.
THE FIX: After Tuesday, the nation’s primary-season process will move on to many other states. Are there any things that you think that the country as a whole or particular states need to do to make the entire primary season more inclusive or interesting to voters?
BOWERS: The two most important ways to increase voter turnout would be to have primaries as opposed to caucuses and to allow for early voting. Most people are very busy and simply do not have the time for the lengthy caucus process or to stand in line for hours while party volunteers check them in.
JELEN: The main thing to remember is that process is confusing, time-consuming and labor intensive. Key to a successful campaign is a good ground game (voter id[enfication], turnout, transportation). The [Clinton] campaign seemed to devote more resources to ground game, but I saw/heard more Sanders ads. Trump has been advertising heavily Sunday through Monday; [I'm] not sure this will have much of an effect.