First Iowa, Now Nevada: Why the Caucus System Is a Mess

Participants of Nevada's Republican caucuses say they were mired in chaos and disorganization, but caucuses seem to cause problems regardless of what state they’re in.
February 24, 2016, 10:00pm
Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images

Not checking IDs. Double-voting. Precinct captains wearing Trump hats. These were just some of the dysfunctions reported at Nevada's Republican caucuses on Tuesday, which Donald Trump won in a landslide.

The billionaire businessman got nearly 46 percent of the vote in Nevada, handily beating Marco Rubio, who got roughly 24 percent, and Ted Cruz, who won about 21 percent.

Some saw the results as sullied by what they took to be violations of practice, but the Nevada Republican Party tweeted that it was not against the rules for volunteers to wear a candidate's gear, and insisted that there were "no official reports of voting irregularities or violations" at caucus sites.

Here's a screenshot of a photo from caucus-goer. Ballot collector wearing Trump cap and shirt: — Elaina Plott (@elainaplott)February 24, 2016

Nevertheless, complaints about the chaotic proceedings that took place last night, following similar problems reported in the Iowa caucuses, has raised doubt over whether the archaic caucus process is the best way to conduct democracy.

"Whether Nevada will continue to be 'First in the West' remains to be seen," said Michael Bowers, a political science professor at University of Nevada and expert on Nevada's governmental process. "We don't seem to be able to do a very organized caucus in either party."

Many of last night's participants would agree.

Richard Schlueter, who balloted for Trump, said that when he arrived at Palo Verde High School in east Las Vegas, the crowd was so dense that he had trouble finding the table that had been set up to accept and count ballots. When he finally located it, he discovered that the precinct captain who was supposed to be in charge hadn't turned up, and that "some lady" had assumed the seat instead and was checking the IDs of voters 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."

Related: Trump Wins Nevada Amid Hijinks, Confusion and Voter Fraud Allegations

Nevada typically held primary elections before 2008, when it adopted a caucus system that was scheduled early in the primary race. This was the third time that Nevada has held caucuses since then, and it hasn't gone particularly smooth in previous years. The 2012 Republican caucus was plagued by problems including vote-counting errors, exceedingly low turnout, and confusing last-minute changes to the laws. It took three days to declare Mitt Romney the winner.

Nevada's Republican caucuses might have left some observers scratching their heads, but this was also true of the state's Democratic caucuses on February 20. Multiple precincts were too close to call between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, so the winner was decided by a card draw.

Caucuses seem to cause problems regardless of what state they're in. This year's Iowa caucuses, the first voting contest in the presidential primary, were also mired with controversy. Cruz's campaign got heat for sending out a misleading email on caucus night saying that Ben Carson was dropping out and encouraging caucusgoers to move over to their side, while Bernie Sanders nearly contested the results due to suspicion over 90 disputed precincts, where Clinton was declared the winner by a coin flip.

In the days following the Iowa caucuses, Sanders (who reportedly won some coin flips himself) discussed the controversial process on CBS News.

"I love Iowa and I love the caucus process — it really gets people deeply, deeply involved — but frankly, as I understand it, there were six precincts where a coin toss who would get delegates," he said. "I think we can probably do better."

Related: It's Official: Clinton Wins Iowa, as Sanders Drops Recount Talk

Part of the reason for the dysfunction is that caucuses, unlike a primary vote, are controlled by the state parties. If the state party isn't organized, then the process is going to be a bumpy one.

"Nevada simply does not have the history with caucuses that a state such as Iowa has," noted Bowers. "That and the fact that they are run by volunteers with variable levels of training result in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses being somewhat disorganized."

Gary Bickford was also a caucusgoer at Palo Verde last night, where he said his precinct was missing an organizing captain. He also described how the ballots passed out night included the names of many former Republican candidates who weren't even in the running anymore. Most people only checked the boxes next to the names of candidates still in the race, Bickford said, while noting that anyone at the event who balloted for the likes of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Rand Paul, who have all dropped out, would have simply "wasted their vote."

Despite the obvious issues with Nevada's caucus process that became apparent last night, the state parties aren't expected to return to a normal primary election anytime soon. They have a big incentive to keep the caucus system in place because it gives the state parties a bigger say in the nominating process and allows Nevada to vote earlier in the primary season, which puts it in the electoral spotlight along with states like New Hampshire and South Carolina. The debacle of the 2012 Republican caucuses almost cost Nevada its coveted "first in the West" status already, and the party does not want to risk that again.

Unsurprisingly, the Nevada Republican party took pains last night to make sure everything looked like it was going just fine, even when chaos was unfolding at many of the caucus sites and anecdotes of the disorganization surfaced on social media.

Someone in line at the Trump event is trying get a bucket of Bud Lite thru security

— Holly Bailey (@hollybdc)February 24, 2016

Now an announcement that they ran out of ballots. They 'weren't expecting a crowd this size.' — Emily Cahn (@CahnEmily)February 24, 2016

"Volunteers went through extensive training and are doing a great job," the party said in the statement.

Some voters last night wondered why Nevada still chooses to conduct caucuses, with all of their complications and odd rules.

"It would be so much better if you had the system they have in the general elections," Bickford remarked at Palo Verde last night.

Caucuses have a certain appeal because they are seen as a more democratic process of selecting a nominee, explained Nicholas Kachiroubas, a professor at DePaul University's School of Public Service. They allow people to "come together as a community and decide who is going to be the best standard-bearer for our party," he said. "There can be some discussion and there is an opportunity to hear from other candidates."

During a typical primary election, you would just quietly enter a voting booth. Caucuses require voters to meet in a location at a specific time and spend several hours debating their neighbors about the merits of one political candidate versus another. This process limits participation from many people who have scheduling conflicts due to work or childcare demands. Or more often, those who simply do not want to devote the effort it takes to caucus.

A big reason states choose to hold caucuses is that they give state parties much more control over deciding who the nominee will be. The best way that parties can control the nominating process is by making sure only the most engaged activists in their party are voting. This is a lot easier to do with a caucus, which has a much higher barrier of entry, than in a simple primary.

This makes Trump's landslide anti-establishment victory all the more remarkable. His disappointing showing in Iowa after leading in the polls there demonstrated that caucuses were a weakness for him, since his supporters are generally low propensity voters who are less likely to participate when it becomes more difficult to vote. Trump also doesn't have a well-organized ground game with an army of volunteers to help get out the vote.

But Nevada proved this all wrong. Trump didn't just win there — he crushed his second place opponent by double digits in a state with a voting system that was supposed to work against him.

Trump's ability to win two back-to-back primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as the subsequent Nevada caucuses shows how "he really is developing a system that can win no matter what the rules of the game happen to be in that state," said Kachiroubas. The momentum he's built is now shaking the foundations of the Republican Party, which is reckoning with the fact that he could very well be the GOP's nominee come November.

Caucuses were theoretically designed for the most well-informed voters who were prepared to discuss who would be the best candidate for the overall party. Trump has upended this idea by proving he's able to get a core group of ride-or-die voters to show up for him no matter what the voting system is.

Trump voters "aren't open to discussion and aren't interested in what may be better for the long-term benefit of the party," Kachiroubas said. "They're simply going in there to vote for Trump."

Additional reporting from Liz Fields.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928