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Nevada's Last Caucus?

Image of a sign that reads "caucus" with an arrow pointing into a gymnasium.
Noah Glick
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KUNR Public Radio
A sign directs Democratic voters into the gymnasium at Pyramid Lake High School for what may be the state's last presidential caucus.

Caucus... you've probably heard that word a lot this year. For some, it's a time-honored tradition that allows communities to come together to select a political candidate that best represents them. For others, it’s an overly complicated and outdated way of voting. So now that the Nevada Caucuses are firmly behind us, KUNR's Paul Boger decided to take a look at the Silver State’s caucus system and how it may evolve ahead of the next presidential election.

The campaigns have moved on, but for some in the Silver State, the dust is still settling from last month’s caucuses.

“We're just really grateful that we were able to have such a successful caucus,” said Molly Forgey, communications director for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Having the caucus as a process of engaging folks earlier, and preparing them for that final push at the end of the year, is really important.”

Forgey said about 105,000 voters participated in the Nevada caucus. And yet, it could be the state’s last caucus. Since then, prominent Democrats in the state — including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — have voiced support for moving to a primary in the future. That’s partly due to the chaos that took place in Iowa in early February.

There are also concerns over accessibility. For people with disabilities, caucus sites are not always ADA compliant. In rural communities, transportation and distance may further hinder one’s ability to participate.

This year marked the first time Nevada Democrats implemented an early voting component to the caucus, which proved incredibly popular with nearly three-quarters of those who participated voting early.

A woman wearing a "Students for Kennedy" shirt leans agains a wall.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio
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KUNR Public Radio
Speaking to reporters after a Joe Biden rally, Cristi Maicel of Reno said she disliked the caucus process, but was willing to do it if it would help remove President Trump from office.

That was evident by the long lines outside the Washoe County Democratic Headquarters in Reno, days ahead of the caucus. Voters waited there for hours to cast a physical paper ballot instead of caucusing.

Speaking to voters, they said they just didn’t care for the current process.

“I did the last one and it was horrendous," said Sparks resident Cristi Maciel. "I'd rather just do a primary, but I'll do whatever I can to get that man out of the White House.”

"I don't wish to [caucus]," said Patti Johnson of Reno. "I'm not the least bit interested.” 

18 states and territories held caucuses in 2016. This year, that number dropped to eight. One of the states that made the switch is Idaho.

In 2016, increased participation led to long lines and chaos at some of the caucus sites there. Speaking to Boise State Public Radio, Jesse Maldonado, the political director for the Idaho Democratic Party, said scrapping the caucus was a no-brainer.

“It costs the state party money and it costs people a lot of time. Ultimately, we boiled it down to, it was really disenfranchising.”

But making that switch may be easier said than done in Nevada.

While political parties run the caucuses, they’re actually mandated by state law. That means it would require an act of the legislature to make the change. It’s something Nevada’s Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak said may come up during next year’s session.

Governor Sisolak shakes hands with a voter outside the Washoe County Democratic headquarters.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio
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KUNR Public Radio
Gov. Steve Sisolak shook hands with voters and thanked them for participating in early voting ahead of the Nevada Caucus. Nearly three-quarters of the people who participated in the caucus voted early.

“I think a lot of people didn't like the caucus format," he told reporters during the early voting. "That's why they're caucusing early. They like to get in there and express their opinions and I respect that. So we'll see what the legislature comes up with.”

The move may come with political fallout, though.

Currently, Nevada’s political parties pay for the caucuses, but primaries are run by the state, which could cost taxpayers a pretty penny. During the 1996 Republican presidential primary — the last time one was held here — it cost the state more than $555,000. That’s what ultimately killed primaries in Nevada when the state flirted with them in the 70’s.

A older man with a blue plaid shirt and gray and red jacket stands smiling.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio
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KUNR Public Radio
Gordon Mosley of Gardnerville is among those who enjoys caucusing.

Second, Republicans in the state have remained particularly silent on the matter. KUNR News reached out to the state party for comment, but did not receive a response. And while Democrats are likely to maintain the majority in the legislature next year, GOP lawmakers could frustrate the process if they’re not on board.

Third, you may also alienate voters like, Gordon Mosely of Gardnerville, who enjoy caucusing.

“I want to see other people that think a little bit like me," said Mosley. "I want to see what they have to say [and] who my neighbors are. I want to know who's voting. I like that community building. It’s one of the best things about the United States ever.”

There’s also another wrinkle. Nevada’s spot as an early nominating state was secured because it held a caucus, and there’s a possibility the Silver State may lose its prominent position if it switches to a primary.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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