The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has recommended states switch from caucuses to government-run primary elections to pick the party’s presidential nominee, but Nevada Democrats will stick with party-run caucuses in 2020.
In August, the DNC proposed reforms to the party’s presidential nomination process in an effort to grow the party, increase participation, and rebuild trust with voters after the contentious presidential primaries in 2016.
“While caucuses definitely have their place in the nominating process, the reforms encourage state parties to use a government-run primary where possible and to help ensure that primaries are more accessible to anyone who wants to participate as a Democrat,” the DNC said when making its recommendations.
The reforms were adopted by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee at a Dec. 1 meeting. In Nevada, the work to reform the Democratic state caucus based off those regulations will start in January, according to Artie Blanco, Nevada DNC Member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee — but it will be reform of the caucus, and not switching to a primary.
“We are going to be working on expanding our caucus process so there is more access to some of those who may not at that time be able to participate … on that specific date,” Blanco said. “That is something the party will continue to work on.”
The DNC reforms also provide that states that continue to use caucuses should allow absentee voting, and written votes to allow for a recount if needed.
Since Nevada’s caucuses were awarded an early spot in the presidential election calendar in 2008, party officials have hyped the event as giving the West a greater voice in the process. The excitement over that 2008 caucus is also often credited for building the party, boosting its registration, and playing an important role in former Democratic Senator Harry Reid’s reelection in 2010 despite the Tea Party wave that washed over much of the nation that year.
“Our position in the calendar is very important and we take it very seriously,” said Blanco. “Of all the early states we are the most diverse and I think it’s really important that candidates are exposed to a diverse voting population and hear them out on issues of concern.”
Since 2008, Nevada has been the third state in the primary-caucus process, after Iowa and New Hampshire and before South Carolina. Under the current system rules Nevada would almost assuredly lose an early spot in the process if it switched to a primary.
But opposition to the caucus has long persisted.
“We oppose the caucus system,” said Sondra Cosgrove, who chairs the League of Women Voters Of Nevada and helped legislators develop a bill in 2017 that would have allowed the use of presidential primaries as an option. The bill failed to advance.
“In the last caucus we did for the 2016 election cycle, I had quite a few people call me and email me and say that their vote was being suppressed and they were being disenfranchised,” Cosgrove said.
Nevada’s voting practices are generally open and inclusive, Cosgrove said. Early voting lasts 14 days, there’s no-fault absentee voting, votes are audited and secure on top-of-the-line machines, there are several open voting locations, and voting is generally quick, outside of the end of election day.
“The caucus system is none of those things,” Cosgrove said.
Election officials also backed the 2017 bill.
“I think it is important that I mention that our office had hundreds of calls leading into the caucus and after the caucus in 2016 from voters who expressed their frustration with the caucus process, and thought that our office had something to do with running the election,” Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria told legislators. “Our constituents have made it clear that they would like to see our office involved.”
While it may not seem so at the time, as people wait in long lines to caucus, overall turnout for Nevada caucuses is abysmal compared to traditional elections. The 2016 presidential caucus attracted 84,000 Democrats statewide. By contrast, in last June’s primary election, 146,677 Democrats turned out to vote for state and local candidates.
Nationally, states with caucuses have the lowest voter participation, according to data gathered by Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics. In the eight states where both parties have used caucuses instead of primaries, just 11.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2016, compared to 36.1 percent of voters who participated in states with primaries.
“Even with reforms, the giant gap in voter participation between primaries and caucuses cannot be bridged,” wrote Sabato of the data, noting that primaries are far more inclusive, allowing more voters to cast a ballot with minimal effort.
Democratic leadership in Nevada is looking at the possibility of early voting for the caucus, according to Blanco.
“There are a whole host of possibilities we’re looking at,” Blanco said. “The majority of Democrats do believe in listening to what voters have to say. We are an open party and so we want to be welcoming to all.”
The perception of abuse, corruption and inefficiency surrounding party-run caucuses can run deep, especially after the Nevada’s 2016 caucus and the chaos of the ensuing state party convention, which made national headlines.
“I hear from a lot of students and a lot of people who registered non-partisan that they don’t trust either of the parties and won’t participate in the caucus,” Cosgrove said.
The DNC intends it’s reforms to “restore voters’ trust by making our 2020 nominating process the most inclusive and transparent in our history.” But for some, that promise will ring hollow.
“You end up looking like a hypocrite if … you are complaining about people in the other party engaging in electoral practices that disenfranchise voters and keeps them from voting, and then you, in turn, continue to embrace practices that do the exact same thing,” Cosgrove said.