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Confused By Nevada's Caucus System? Here's What You Need To Know

Julia Ritchey

Republican presidential hopefuls will face off Tuesday for the fifth GOP debate in Las Vegas — about two months before Nevada's caucuses. From secret ballots to all-day stump speeches, this system can be confusing to first-timers. To de-mystify the process, Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey sat down with Precious Hall, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. Below is their conversation, and an abbreviated Q+A. 

Q: What is the difference between a caucus and a primary?

Precious Hall: "The biggest difference... is that the state has to cover the cost of the primary. Political parties have to cover the cost of a caucus. ... From a voter perspective, the bigger difference is the time commitment that is involved. Caucuses require a bit more time than primary elections. ...A primary election you're going in and voting directly for the candidate that you want to be in the general election. A caucus really you're saying what your preference is ... but that is not the final outcome." 

Q: Do you have to be a member of a party to vote in a caucus?

Hall: "You do, in the state of Nevada we have closed caucuses, which means that you have to be a registered Democrat or Republican. They are open to the public, so anyone can show up, but to actually partipate you must be a registered member of that party."

Q: How do the parties differ in the way they run their caucus?

Hall: "The Democrats .. if there are four candidates, say there are four corners of the room, you would actually go to the corner of the candidate you support. Republicans do a secret ballot."

Q: Does having a caucus discourage wider involvement in the election process?

Hall: "It doesn't necessarily on face value discourage involvement, but the time commitment does automatically eliminate some individuals. In a primary election, I can show up to my voting location, it may take me five minutes to go in, cast a ballot for who I want...and I'm done. A caucus can take all day."

Q: Does a caucus party benefit lower-tier candidates?

Hall: "Each party has to have a minimum threshold of support, which is typically around 15 percent. So if I am on of the 12 Republican candidates right now, I have to garner at least 15 percent of support to be what's called a viable candidate. It makes a little difficult if I'm on the bottom tier, however, one of the benefits of the caucus system is I get more personal interaction. So I could show up to different precincts, give different speeeches, meet the voters one-on-one, which could actually increase the support that I get. I can't do that at the voting booth in a primary election. "

Q: Since Nevada is the only state in the west with a caucus, is there a push to reinstate the primary system?

Hall: "Interestingly enough, this last legislative session, there was a push to go back to the primary, but they failed to take action on it before the session closed."

Q: Are caucuses confusing to voters and is there enough education about how to participate in them?

Hall: "I definitely think caucuses are confusing, because as I said it's not a one-step process. We actually have three levels of the caucus in the state. There's the precinct level in which all voters participate, then there's the county caucus and then there's the state. But I definitely encourage everyone to go to whatever political party they're registered under, go to their website, and get the information they need just to understand how the process work so they can participate."

For more election info, visit the Nevada Secretary of State's website or follow on Twitter @NVElect.

For more info on the Democratic caucus on Saturday, Feb. 20, go here.

For more info on the Republican caucus on Feb. 23, go here

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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