The effort succeeded in averting a crisis on the scale of the chaos in Iowa, where a software glitch delayed the release of any results for nearly 24 hours and cast a dark cloud over the early days of the Democratic nominating contest.
But the mad dash in the Mojave Desert may not have been sufficient to save Nevada’s caucuses, which came under severe threat when the state party scrapped the two mobile apps developed by the same company used in Iowa, Shadow, and revamped its procedures at the last minute.
Indeed, caucuses as a whole could now wither and die, marking a swift turn against a process that has existed since at least the 19th century but gained new prominence following the tumult of the 1968 Democratic convention.
Reid, who helped move Nevada’s caucuses up in the calendar in 2008, establishing his state as the first in the West, said on Sunday that it was “time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere.”
That affirmation was echoed on Monday by the state party’s chairman, William McCurdy II, who said it was “time for our state party and elected leaders to look at shifting to a primary process moving forward.” And it was reiterated on Tuesday by the Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, who said he would help “review how we could switch to an early presidential primary.”
Similar sentiment has been voiced in Iowa, where the quadrennial institution had defined the political culture of the state since it inaugurated the modern caucuses in 1972, part of an effort to make the nominating process more inclusive.
It’s a form already on the wane. Only two other states will hold caucuses in 2020, North Dakota and Wyoming. The others have opted for a government-run primary.
One reason for the shift: Caucuses are complex. The time-consuming exercise in participatory democracy involves voters aligning into groups to announce their backing for one candidate or another and then realigning if they can’t muster enough support for their candidate.
“It’s nearly as complicated as Sudoku,” said Lisa Kelleher, a 63-year-old college professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who spent six hours in training to prepare to run a precinct over the weekend.
They became even more convoluted this cycle, when the Democratic National Committee forced states sticking with the process to make it more accessible. At the same time, new transparency requirements — aimed at restoring confidence in the nominating contest following allegations that party officials had put their thumbs on the scale for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — mandated the release of two raw vote totals in addition to the final delegate allocation.
What the rules actually achieved was putting the complex arithmetic involved in caucuses under a microscope. And the specimen revealed to the public wasn’t pretty.
In Iowa, where the result is still in question, candidates were assigned delegates in precincts where they had received no support in caucus-goers’ final alignment. In other precincts, more delegates were awarded than were originally allotted.
The state party in Nevada reported results from a small number of precincts about four hours after the caucuses had begun but waited a day to report any more than roughly 50 percent of the numbers. Hundreds of precincts at points showed zero attendees, and some numbers were released and then subsequently erased from the state party’s website.
In the meantime, complaints emerged from former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign about how the state party had integrated early voting preferences into caucus-day support. Volunteers, entrusted with running the closely watched contest, flaked at the last minute — underscoring the unpredictability of a process that depends on volunteer labor. Sarah Mahler, the Democratic chairwoman in Washoe County, said some of her volunteers fell ill, forcing her to call in last-minute favors from friends.
Many volunteers who did follow through encountered a busy signal when they attempted to report results to a hotline staffed by 200 operators working out of the Rio Convention Center in Las Vegas.
The delay owed to the complex web of results that needed to be conveyed — early votes and caucus-day votes for the first and second alignment, not to mention delegate hauls for each viable candidate, among other details. Math worksheets hung on the walls of high school classrooms where caucuses unfolded were more reminiscent of freshman algebra than a presidential election.
Unlike in Iowa, where the outcome was close, the thumping victory by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) meant the numbers coming out of Nevada were likely to meet less scrutiny.
“I don’t know how the magic happens,” said Donna West, the Democratic chairwoman in Clark County. “I just know it’s happening.”
In the most dramatic departure from the situation in Iowa, there was no indication of malfunctioning technology. That itself reflected something of a feat, fewer than three weeks after the state party had shelved its reporting apps and devised a customized Google form loaded onto party-purchased iPads to help volunteers tabulate and report results.
“The app worked perfectly,” said Phil Subutka, a caucus leader at Coronado High School in Henderson, Nev., as he repeatedly hit redial to the party’s hotline to report results. “But we can’t get through on the phone.”
Many volunteers resorted to texting in a photo of the results, a backup option provided by the state party, which also sent out additional numbers for the hotline as the day wore on. In a low-service area outside Reno, volunteers went outdoors in search of reception.
The problems did not appear to approach the chaos and confusion that marred Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, when a breakdown in the mobile transmission of results was followed by a failure to call in results as the backup number circulated online, prompting a flood of prank calls.
Without more complete results on Saturday night, there was uncertainty about second place, as top aides to Buttigieg and Joe Biden jockeyed to portray the numbers as favorable to their respective candidate. The former vice president ended up finishing a distant second to Sanders, while Buttigieg fell below the 15 percent threshold required to win a share of delegates allocated according to statewide results. The other delegates are allocated based on results in congressional districts.
Proponents of caucuses defend them as institutions of civic democracy in a fractured social landscape. For one afternoon or evening, at least, neighbors gather and debate the direction of the country.
But the introduction of early voting this year — an attempt to make the process more accessible — meant many had already made their choices, alone and well in advance. Then, the integration of those choices into caucus-day alignments unfolded via iPad, leaving at least a portion of the drama and uncertainty of the caucuses up to a piece of software.
In some precincts, the technology’s intrusion made for a confusing dynamic, as caucus-goers stayed in their corner expecting more support from early votes to materialize.
One group of Buttigieg supporters inside Thurman White Academy in Henderson took a gamble, hoping the iPad would spit out better numbers for them on the final alignment. It did not.
Reed Albergotti and Holly Bailey contributed to this report.