In light of recent headlines on AB 126 and Nevada Democrats’ renewed push to reach the top of the presidential primary calendar, I figure today is a good day to re-up this column from nearly a year ago recalling the ugly reality behind the glossy veneer of our “First in the West” caucus.
Here’s the TL/DR in advance: The vast majority of Nevada voters don’t care so much about “First in the West” status as they do about their right to vote and their ability to ensure their vote counted, so let’s just ditch the caucus and give the voters the proper primary that they deserve.
Heads up: I originally posted this on February 26, 2020. Since we’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the Nevada Democratic Caucus, and since the Nevada Legislature is finally moving with a bill to switch our presidential nominating system from a privately run caucus to a publicly run primary, let’s revisit what actually happened last year and why AB 126 is happening now. Stay tuned to the end of this story for the lowdown on AB 126.
Why is Harry Reid speaking out now?
On Sunday, former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D) shocked the state and the nation with a press release. In that release, Reid declared, “With so much Democratic enthusiasm in Nevada, demonstrated again by the tremendous caucus turnout this year, I believe we should make the process of selecting our nominee even more accessible. We’ve made it easier for people to register to vote here in Nevada in recent years and now we should make it easier for people to vote in the presidential contests. That’s why I believe it’s time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere.”
In 2006, Reid successfully lobbied the DNC to include Nevada in its new bracket of four early states in the 2008 caucus and primary calendar. Since 2008, Reid has credited the caucus with his own reelection in 2010 and a decade’s worth of gains that led up to 2018’s “Blue Wave” that cemented Democrats’ advantage here in the Silver State. This is why many political insiders and junkies were surprised by Reid’s sudden shift on the caucus v. primary debate.
Since Reid’s shift, the entire top tier of Nevada Democratic party leaders have followed suit, from Governor Steve Sisolak (D) to U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) and Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) Chair and Assembly Member William McCurdy, II (D-Las Vegas). Yes, it’s funny to see all this pre-set choreography go into motion. However, let’s not lose sight of why they’re all flipping now.
Why make them wait?
Yes, the caucus worked better than the national media pundits suggested upon reading select national media reports with “Doom!” and “Iowa: The Sequel!” in their headlines. As a result, Nevada Democrats may not feel the urge to change course the way the Iowa Democratic Party did when Chair Troy Price bolted following the revelation of the “Acronym/Shadow App-ocalypse Now”. Yet just because our caucus worked better than theirs doesn’t mean our caucus worked all that well for the voters who participated.
Disclaimer: I visited an early voting caucus site on February 16, 2020. Because I arrived early, my wait in line was “only” 50 minutes. Those of us at this site were among the most fortunate voters, as Nevadans elsewhere (especially elsewhere here in the Las Vegas Valley) had to wait two hours or longer just to fill out and turn in their preference cards. Just two days later and just minutes before U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) UNLV rally began, I spoke with a campaign worker who noted that many of the voters in line had already been waiting for over two hours.
The next day, Make the Road Nevada Action’s Leo Murrieta noted that his mother also had to wait very long in line at her early voting caucus site, at a location that lacked chairs for her and others to sit in while waiting. At least at another early voting site in Mesquite that we were keeping tabs on, the site lead apparently made sure the area had chairs for seniors and people with disabilities to sit in while waiting.
Remember, this is what Nevada Democratic leaders hail as a “success”. They’re high-fiving each other over a system where nearly 75,000 people were forced to wait in line just to turn in preference cards, then another 30,000 had to spend an hour or (far) longer in a room where volunteers had to perform countless counting exercises. No wonder why the Culinary Union members and casino workers fled the scene at Bellagio as soon as they could last Saturday. (No really, most of them had to get back to work and had no more time to waste on counting exercises.)
Why put them through all this?
Speaking of the volunteers, it’s not their fault that they had to spend so much time figuring out how to make the Google based “tool” and the PDF voter registration file on the iPads work. It’s not their fault that they had to spend so much time counting the rooms. It’s not their fault that they had to make sense of sporadic sharing of information, and it’s certainly not their fault when “sources in the party” shared such information with select media outlets before sharing with these volunteers who were tasked to make all this work.
It’s also not the volunteers’ fault that the party didn’t have enough of them (let alone, enough organizing staff). Early this month, I asked aloud whether the party hired enough staff and recruited enough volunteers to pull off such a labor-intensive and time-consuming series of events, a series of events that only became more labor-intensive and more time-consuming when the party scrambled at the very last minute to repeal and replace Acronym/Shadow with their slapdash Google, iPad, and ultimately pen, paper, and phone line dependent caucus check-in, calculation, and results reporting system.
Now, we know the answer: The party had just enough people on board to subject nearly 105,000 Nevada voters to long lines and long waits, and just enough people on board to get just enough of these voters not to give up in agony, just so that they could boast to local and national reporters about “high turnout” that beat 2016’s in raw numbers, but not in share of the Democratic electorate. Just look at the turnout statistics in our Las Vegas and Reno reports, and you can see for yourself how few voters actually participated.
And finally, here’s why “we’re not as bad as Iowa” just doesn’t work any more.
Believe it or not, “We’re not as bad as Iowa” doesn’t sound as appealing to most voters as the prospect of simply going to a vote center and casting a ballot. Thanks to recent reforms like automatic voter registration (AVR), same-day registration, and (traditional) election day vote centers that mostly work like the easy-in-easy-out early voting system that Nevadans had already come to know and love, Nevada elections are more accessible to more voters than ever before.
So why not just let our voters vote in real primaries that can take full advantage of all these recent voting rights advancements? “We’re not as bad as Iowa” is just not good enough. Having an army of trained election workers handle voter registration, voting equipment, and the actual votes sounds like a more sound strategy than subjecting a smaller pool of volunteers to NDA’s, “strategy shifts”, and “tools” that slow down the iPads and the lines.
“We’re not as bad as Iowa” should not be the goal any more. And if we insist on shouting “We matter!” on buttons and all over social media, then we need to make sure our voters’ voices actually matter. It’s long past time to move to primaries and place the antiquated caucus system in the dustbin of history where it belongs.
Postscript: AB 126 is here. Again, let’s focus on who and what actually matters.
Yesterday, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and fellow Assembly Members Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) and Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB 126 to switch Nevada’s presidential nominating system from a party-run caucus to a state-and-county-run primary, and to set the official primary date as “the Tuesday immediately preceding the last Tuesday in January of each presidential election year”. Already, there’s mounting excitement over Nevada finally supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire as “First in the Nation!” But as always, it’s worth checking for any devils in the details.
Most interestingly, the primary envisioned by this draft of AB 126 allows for a week of in-person early voting: more than what Nevada Democrats got from last year’s caucus, but still less than what Nevada voters traditionally get with primary and general elections. Otherwise, it looks like AB 126 will give Nevada voters the chance to do with picking presidential candidates what they do in other elections.
Bill may have been there 100 years ago, but the Age of NH is over.
The time of NV is at hand. https://t.co/MphDAfkhCD
— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 16, 2021
While the “First in the Nation!” component of AB 126 is drawing the most local and national media attention, the more important component for the vast majority of voters is the move to a primary. Though it’s concerning to see the shortened early voting period, voting rights activists will just have to remain vigilant to ensure that this does not translate into future cuts to ballot access in the traditional state primary and the general election.
I’ve said it before, but I definitely feel the need to say it again now: Voters shouldn’t have to wait in line for multiple hours just to cast their ballots, and they shouldn’t be required to follow the party convention calendar just to determine whether their votes actually mattered. If we want to call ourselves a democracy, we need to ensure that voters can cast their ballots and have those ballots properly counted. After all that Nevada voters suffered during the caucus, then again during the general election and the aftermath, can’t we just let them vote in a proper, publicly run primary?