Donald Trump landed a resounding win at the Nevada caucuses Tuesday night, but not without a lot of headaches for voters and overwhelmed caucus chairs.
Massive crowds, volunteer captains who failed to show up, and alleged double-voting lent a circus-like atmosphere to some of the Republican caucus locations Tuesday night and could potentially undermine Nevada's final results.
The billionaire businessman scored his third win out of four early contests, sweeping Nevada with 45.9 percent of the vote and beating his closest rivals, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, by margins of 22 and 24 percentage points, respectively.
Richard Schlueter, who balloted for Trump on Tuesday, said that when he arrived at Palo Verde High School in east Las Vegas to vote, the crowd was so dense he had trouble finding the table set up to accept and count ballots. When he finally spotted it, Schlueter discovered that the precinct captain who was supposed to be in charge hadn't turned up and that "some lady" — a fellow voter — had assumed the task of checking IDs of others who crowded around the table.
"This caucus is a chaotic thing," said Schlueter, a retired nuclear submarine engineer. "We don't know who's who, who's voting for what. Some precinct captains are very good and very serious about their precincts, but mine didn't even bother to show."
Schlueter's precinct table wasn't the only one missing an organizing captain. Gary Bickford decided to seize the reins for precinct table 6521 after the original captain was a no-show. Bickford, a former state legislator in Maine who considers himself a "moderate Republican," said that caucusing was "not the easiest process."
The Republican Party set up more than 130 caucusing locations this year to serve more than 1,800 precincts across Nevada. At Palo Verde, there appeared to be no method as to how multiple precincts were divvied up Tuesday night, with some tables set up in the main cafeteria, while several others were relegated to smaller classrooms.
One voter who turned up at table 6521 said he was confused as to why he had to show his ID to enter the caucusing hall but not when he actually voted.
And that wasn't the only commotion or confusion at Palo Verde High School Tuesday night.
An hour after voting began at 5pm, Donald Trump, the party's frontrunner and now-declared winner of the state, breezed through the main cafeteria doors with security detail in tow.
Within seconds, a crowd mobbed the presidential candidate along one side of the room, bumping into some of the precinct tables where residents were still balloting for candidates. Somewhere behind the firewall of fans and iPhones, Trump's hair was visible as he inched slowly toward the exit. Following Trump's departure at around 6:45pm, the room suddenly looked sparse.
At least 57 people submitted ballots at precinct table 6521 Tuesday night, but by around 7:17pm, Bickford only had 56 votes filed in his manila folder. One of the ballots, he explained, went missing somewhere in the first hour of caucusing as masses of voters descended on the table all at once. Twenty minutes later, he recovered the missing ballot, which had apparently fluttered to the floor. Unsure whether someone had tampered with the slip — which was marked for Trump — Bickford ripped it up. He later explained the discrepancy to party officials who took the final ballot envelopes.
Bickford's table was already behind schedule. Organizers were meant to start counting ballots at 7pm, according to the rules. But come 7:40pm, that still hadn't started. Since the crowds largely dispersed once Trump made a hasty exit, there was no one left to volunteer to represent Bickford's precinct as a delegate at the county-level caucuses — the next step in the Nevada's four-step voting process that will eventually lead to the Republican National Convention this summer.
Nevada, which awards delegates in proportion to the statewide vote, will ultimately send 30 delegates to the national convention. Trump will collect at least 12 of the state's delegates, while Rubio and Cruz will win at least five each. As at 2am, eight delegates have yet to be allocated.
Bickford said the missing delegates would be dealt with at the state convention in May.
"By the time the convention comes, basically the nominee will have been decided, so it's just a matter of formality," he said.
Across the room at other precinct tables, things weren't going much better. Some volunteers who were collecting and counting ballots — and are supposed to remain neutral guardians of those votes — were seen sporting campaign gear, including stickers for Trump, Rubio, and Cruz.
Hours after caucuses had concluded Tuesday night, the Nevada Republican Party issued a statement defending the practice, saying "It's not against the rules for volunteers to wear candidate gear."
"Volunteers went through extensive training and are doing a great job," the party said in the statement. "There have been no official reports of voting irregularities or violations."
Though no official reports had been made, plenty of anecdotes from caucusgoers and journalists flowed on social media, including claims some residents voted more than once.
Man here says 'it's a disaster.' No one is checking in or checking IDs. They're handing out ballots willy nilly. Some guy voted trump twice
— Emily Cahn (@CahnEmily)February 24, 2016
Says caucus volunteers are wearing Trump gear (they're not allowed to show preference). 'Actively bullying folks. Not checking IDs.'
— Elaina Plott (@elainaplott)February 24, 2016
1. 11 names on ballot despite dropouts
2. Counting system w/texted ballot photos
We are done mattering.
— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports)February 24, 2016
Joyce Rice Ross, a Trump supporter who caucused for the first time Tuesday, said she had watched the Iowa caucuses on TV and to her "it seemed so easy."
When she turned up at Palo Verde, she was shocked. "Here it's just random. It's a mess."
What's more, although many candidates have dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, the ballots passed out at the caucuses on Tuesday night included the names of many former candidates. This phenomenon happens across multiple states every presidential election cycle when candidates typically "suspend" their campaigns, instead of formally withdrawing and notifying state elections authorities before ballots are printed en masse.
Bickford said most people at his table only checked the boxes next to the names of candidates still in the race, but added that anyone who balloted for Carly Fiorina or Jeb Bush — who have dropped out — for instance,will simply "waste their vote."
The messy process comes just days after the Nevada College Republicans sent a letter to their members on Friday informing them that "due to a loophole," they could caucus twice this year, once for Democrats and then again for Republicans to "ensure that a Republican is put in the White House in 2016" — a practice known as "party raiding."
The "loophole," Nevada political writer Jon Ralston explained, would allow Republicans who had already registered to vote to turn up at a Democratic caucus on February 20 and switch parties on-site. Unlike Republicans, state Democrats allow same day voter registration in Nevada, which significantly boosts turnout. The voter would ostensibly vote for whichever Democratic candidate they perceived to be the weaker nominee (according to many Republicans, that would be Senator Bernie Sanders). But because the GOP locked its in voter rolls on February 13, the last-minute party-change would not be recorded, allowing them to vote in the Republican caucus Tuesday night as well.
The Nevada Democratic Party immediately released a statement condemning any plans to double caucus, warning Nevadans that voting twice could be a felony.
"The Nevada State Democratic Party will work with law enforcement to prosecute anyone who falsely registers as a Democrat to caucus tomorrow and subsequently participates in the Republican caucuses on Tuesday," State Party Chair Roberta Lange said in a statement ahead of the Democratic primary.
Less than four hours before the caucuses were set to begin, the state Republican Party released a statement announcing it would allow members of the public to observe the caucusing process to minimize the chance of fraud and "record and report suspicious conduct in today's caucus," although those observers were not permitted to photograph or film proceedings.
This article has been updated to reflect final vote counts.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields