What I Saw at the Nevada Caucus

By Wayne Kinney of Bend, Oregon. Wayne is one of Oregon’s members of the Democratic National Committee, and is Chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon’s Rules Committee.

I spent four days in Reno last week, but I never saw the inside of a casino.

I didn’t go for any presidential candidate, or like Grant, two of them at once. I went because I wanted to help Nevadans in their first early primary caucus, and I wanted to learn about how a caucus works.

I haven’t always given much thought to the mechanics of putting on a caucus or a primary. In Oregon and in most states, the delegate selection process starts with a state-run primary. As partisans, we usually worry about how we get supporters of our candidate to vote – we don’t think much about whether there are enough ballots, or people to run the precinct.

But as the lead person working on the process for Oregon’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention, I thought I’d be able to learn something from people who were organizing caucuses in every precinct in Nevada.

And in the office of the Washoe (that’s the Reno area) County Democrats, there were plenty of people to learn from. In addition to Amy Curtis-Webber, the county party executive director, and Brian Hutchinson, the northern Nevada director for the state party, there were six other staffers working around the clock. Two were on loan from the DNC, and two had come there from working on Chris Dodd’s campaign in Iowa. They were all great to work with.

There were bunches of volunteers streaming in and out (including the very nice couple who gave me a place to sleep for three days), and I have no idea how many people there were working on this in Las Vegas.

Except for errands, sleep and meals, I stuck to the office of the Washoe County Democrats. I didn’t go to any campaign events, and didn’t see a single presidential candidate. Elizabeth Kucinich visited the office on Friday night. Sen. Clinton’s campaign bus was parked next to the office a couple of times (her office was a few doors down). Mitt Romney did a campaign event at a hotel a few blocks away on Friday.

The office was in an unlikely place. It was very close to the Reno airport, very easy to find, and looked more like a sales office than an office for a political party. The Washoe County Democrats share space with the Nevada Democrats.

My first task was to call people on a list, and convince them to help organize their precinct caucus. Washoe County has 410 precincts, and caucuses to be held in 87 different places. We were calling absolutely cold, which I found a little unnerving, but I knew it was necessary. I found someone to chair a small precinct, and was the office hero for a few minutes. He sounded enthusiastic on the phone, but never showed up for training or for his caucus.

I called a few other precincts, and didn’t even have that kind of luck.

My other duties involved putting names of precinct organizers on huge charts stuck on the wall, printing out maps of caucus locations for the later-arriving Californian volunteers, and running a few errands.

Most of the time, I was helping out on the phones.

Reno is a lot smaller and a long way from Las Vegas, and apparently, there’s some bad feeling among some. I was told to answer the phone “Washoe County Democrats,” not “Nevada Democrats.” At least twice, I answered the phone “Wasco County Democrats,” but I don’t know if anyone noticed. I also mispronounced a few local names. Stead, for example, is pronounced “sted,” and not “steed.”

Most of the calls were asking for their caucus location, or asking how they could switch parties. The rules of the caucus allowed people to change their registration at the caucus. We got lots of calls about switching parties, which was nice to hear.

People could get information about their caucus by putting that information into a form on the Nevada Democratic caucus website, except that it didn’t work a good part of the time. I and others finally stopped trying to use it. Nevada has the same vendor for the voter file that Oregon Democrats use, so if someone was a new voter or had moved, we’d just plug in the street name, and pick an address that was close. Reno and Sparks seems full of apartment buildings, and often we could find the same street address.

Training sessions for caucus leaders were held Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, and Friday late morning. They were all packed. Training was very good – the trainers (most of them volunteers) knew their stuff, the manual was very well done, and they walked people through the process in a way that was easy to understand.

I was surprised at the amount of paperwork that was needed – it was far more than we use in Oregon. There were sheets of names of Democrats in the precincts, registration sheets for people who weren’t on those lists, instruction sheets showing organizers how to do the math, duplicates of the instructions in Spanish, and blank sheets of paper in case you needed them for something else. If there was a tie, a special Nevada Democrats deck of cards was included – what else would you expect in Nevada? The packets for some of the precincts were several inches thick.

Washoe County was being organized by the state house districts (they call it the Assembly), and there are seven districts that are wholly in the county (four held by Democrats, by the way). Each staffer was responsible for a district. Maps were on the wall, with a list of each precinct and slots to write in the names of the people who would be organizing the precinct.

Precinct caucuses were to elect a delegate for each 50 registered Democrats, with some precincts electing as much as 13 and others only one. The median number seemed to be seven or eight. Unlike Las Vegas, we didn’t have any special caucuses in the casinos.

I was given two precincts in Sparks. They had not been able to find people to chair them, and I was paired with a retired engineer from the Bay Area. Nearly all of the precincts were chaired by locals, but there were a few, perhaps as many as 20, where there were holes.

My caucuses were held in an older elementary school – the sort of cinder-block schools that were built in the early 1950s. I had one precinct that would elect eight delegates, and another that would elect one. One other precinct, also electing only one delegate, was meeting there as well.

My colleague, Bill, and I got there just before 10 a.m., and the caucus chair for the other precinct, Steph, got there shortly after. We started setting up in a small multi-purpose room and hadn’t gotten very far before the Clinton campaign folks arrived. A few minutes later, Obama campaign folks got there. All were very pleasant.

By 10:30, the small lobby of the school was getting crowded. We weren’t supposed to open the doors until 11 a.m., but did it anyway – it was SRO in the lobby, and cold outside.

Unfortunately, I didn’t plan the registration process logistics very well. Caucus participants were to sign in on a list that included a sticker with their name on it that was then affixed to a “preference card” listing the candidates. People who weren’t on the list had to fill out new voter registration cards before they got their preference card.

We didn’t create enough room for the process to move smoothly, and people just sort of formed a scrum in front of the registration table. I pulled two people out from the crowd and had them help sign in, and I started working with people who had to fill out voter registration forms. After a half-hour of chaos, we got all 84 people registered.

Rules allowed the caucus to start at 11:30, but registration had to continue until noon, and people couldn’t divide into “preference groups” for their candidates until noon. Because we hadn’t gotten a handle on registration, we didn’t start until 11:50. Only one person came too late – about 10 minutes after registration had closed.

We then had people divide up into groups. Steph’s precinct was overwhelming for Clinton, and my single-delegate precinct was overwhelming for Obama. My larger, eight-delegate precinct split this way:

Obama 30
Clinton 28
Edwards 2
Kucinich 1
Uncommitted 1

A group needed 10 to be viable, so four people had to join either Obama or Clinton to have a final vote.

No matter what happened, the delegates from this precinct would split at four each for Obama and Clinton, but people went after those four with vigor. One person couldn’t make up his mind and left. Someone else, a Clinton supporter, left for health reasons.

The final split was:

Obama 31
Clinton 29

After that, each group elected their members to the county convention.

There was some anxiety between the Obama and Clinton campaign folks, but nothing major. Once, a Clinton campaign person handed me a plastic Clinton megaphone, but I told him I couldn’t use it. I don’t think people had a hard time hearing me.

Once the choosing was done and delegates selected, I dialed an 800 number and entered the numbers of delegates elected on the phone’s keypad. It was all very efficient.

After the caucus, a man who had been elected an Obama delegate was talking about AFSCME sending in 1,000 campaign workers for Clinton. He then looked at me and announced that I was one of those people.

I had no idea where that came from, until he pointed to my lanyard.

Nevada Democrats issued cards for each precinct that gave instructions on how to phone in caucus results. AFSCME donated the lanyards that held them up. I hadn’t noticed the logo on the lanyard until he pointed to me.

I told him that I was from the Oregon Democrats, that I wasn’t an AFSCME member, and that I hadn’t chosen a presidential candidate. He seemed to take my word for it.

When I got back to the office, it was full of people bringing in their packets. Ribbons, balloons and happy people were every where. It was a party atmosphere, with volunteers feeling great about the process, and staffers feeling a mixture that seemed to be a combination of accomplishment, and relief that it was over.

By the time I got back, more than 80 percent of the results were in. Clinton had won most of the delegates, based on a strong showing in Clark County. Obama won Washoe, and most of the smaller rural counties.

Clinton won statewide by approximately five points, but Obama appeared to have won 13 of the 25 delegates at stake. Results are determined by congressional district as well as statewide, and Obama’s victory in the 2nd District gave him the edge. There are also eight automatic delegates, who are officially uncommitted.

There’s been talk in Oregon Democratic circles about going to a caucus. Proponents talk about the potential for party building, and that seems logical to me. Certainly there were lots of volunteers in Nevada, and certainly some of them will continue to be active.

There were 114,000 participants in the Democratic caucus, out of 397,000 registered Democrats and 141,000 registered independents. While that’s a huge turnout for a caucus, and was much higher than some expected, it’s still only approximately 20 percent turnout. In 2004, with the nominee already decided, Oregon’s presidential primary turnout percentage was more than double that.

Costs of the caucus in Nevada were estimated at $2 million, which means that it cost approximately $17 for each participant.

That’s an awful lot of money to spend, and I don’t think we should abandon our primary.

That doesn’t mean that caucuses don’t have value. They certainly can be inspiring, and I found that at my precinct caucuses.

At the school, Steph told me that she was thrilled her granddaughter was with her at the caucus. It was wonderful for her granddaughter to see a woman running for president, she said. The girl, 10, helped with registration in her precinct, and was very diligent.

In the Obama group, there were three young black couples, all with babies in their arms. One couple was posing their tiny daughter with an Obama sign and taking a picture. Two young black men were elected as Obama delegates to the county convention. I congratulated them afterward – they were beaming.

Sometimes I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but it hit me at that point. People get involved with politics if they feel a connection. For some, its family or tradition, others, it’s an issue, and for some, it’s that someone is running who looks like they do. It’s looking at their daughter or son, and thinking that they have a stake in what happens around them. It expands the old adage, not heard so much anymore, that their child could grow up to be President.

It’s still very early, but this is clear to me: That Clinton and Obama are leading candidates for president is very good for our country.

  • (Show?)

    Very nice Wayne, thanks for going and for the nice post.

  • (Show?)

    Fantastic essay! Thanks for it, for your work described above and your future work here for our primary in Oregon. It's easy to take for granted how many people put in long, long hours just to make the gears of democracy turn.

    I don't think I support a caucus in Oregon, at least not as the official nomination process (maybe as a non-binding straw poll, but then that's potentially expensive). A caucus seems to invite controversy and even if run perfectly it still denies some people their voice, such as military stationed elsewhere, people who can't get out of work, people to old or ill to easily show up at a caucus, and other absentees.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    Thanks for going Wayne, expect me to ty to pick your brain in a couple weeks. See ya, Chuck

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    January 22, 2008

    Jill Derby, Chair
    Nevada State Democratic Party
    1210 S. Valley View Road
    Suite 114
    Las Vegas, NV 89102
    Dear Chair Derby:
    On behalf of the Obama for America campaign, I am writing to request that the Nevada State Democratic Party conduct an inquiry into an apparent and disturbing pattern of incidents reported at precinct locations throughout the state during the January 19 Caucus.
    These reports suggest the possibility of activity conducted in violation of Party rules and the rights of voters—activity that, as the volume and distribution of those complaints indicate, may have been planned and coordinated with the willful intention to distort the process in the favor of one candidate, Senator Clinton.  A sheet of instructions provided by the Clinton campaign to its precinct works captures its program for the Caucus: "It's not illegal unless they [the temporary precinct chairs] tell you so."  (See attachment).  This certainly suggests that, for the Clinton campaign, the operative standard of conduct was, simply and only, what it could get away with.
    On the day of the Caucus, we received by phone reports of misconduct, violations of the rules and irregularities, in the hundreds.  Since that time, well over a thousand more accounts have been sent to us.  Others have begun to emerge in other sources. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/01/sleaze-in-nevad.html#more
    At the outset, we wish to make clear what the inquiry we are requesting is not intended to accomplish.  We are not seeking to challenge the outcome of the Caucuses at the precinct level.
    Nor is it our intention to question the extraordinary efforts devoted by the NSDP to the organization and conduct of the Caucus, including the contribution its leadership made to resolve the high volume of questions and problems that exploded during the caucusing.  Indeed, the Party responded promptly and effectively to the frontal attack on the Caucus in the form of an eleventh hour legal action by Senator Clinton’s allies, intended to shut down voting locations or to put into question the legitimacy of the process.
    The question raised here about activities on Caucus Day concerns solely the tactics employed by one campaign and their effects—their intended and actual effects—on the participation of voters supporting other candidates.  Participation is a principle second to none in importance to the Democratic Party, emphasized throughout the national party’s rules, as well those of the Nevada party.
    Nature of Suppressive and Other Improper Activity
    We have attempted to sort through the range of reports received, and while our own review has not been completed in the short time since the conclusion of the Caucus, we suggest that the evidence supports an inquiry focused on the following:
     Door closings
    As you know, and as their own training materials confirm, the Clinton campaign informed its precinct captains that the doors should close—and registration should end—at 11:30 am.  This is, of course, false:  the rules could not be clearer that any voter wishing to participate would until 12:00 pm take his or her place in line.  What the rules clearly specify is repeated, with equal clarity, in the party’s own Guide to the Caucuses.
    It seems inconceivable that a well-financed and nationally organized campaign, stressing a platform of competence and experience, could have inadvertently misunderstood a rule of first importance to the Caucus.  It is a rule governing participation and intended to encourage it.  Any preparation for the Caucus would have included careful attention to any such rules of eligibility.
    Yet the Manual put out by the Clinton campaign stated a false statement of the “closed door” rules.
    Voters have given these reports, which are representative of others received like them:
    •           "It happened at my caucus site and it happened, apparently, at every caucus site in Southern Nevada, as I spoke to dozens of Barack volunteers from other caucus sites who all said the same thing.  At 11:30, the Hillary supporters were clamoring to have the doors closed, saying that the caucus was supposed to start at 11:30 and the doors should be closed immediately.  The theory was that if a number of different people asked the caucus chair to close the doors at 11:30, some caucus chairs might believe that 11:30 was indeed the official door-closing time and would close the doors.  This appeared to be the case and a number of caucus locations across the Vegas area, from my own first-hand (random but small) sample.
    Apparently, Hillary's strategy was to tell her supporters to get there early, and have the doors close 30 minutes prior to their prescribed time, thereby shutting out some Barack supporters who might be a little late."
    •           "Those Hillary people…closed the doors on our people and we had to call the cops in some precincts to have locks cut from doors, [they] slipped people in the back doors, they sent people home at 11:30 when it was illegal to prevent people from voting before noon."
    •           “Issue one was when the temporary chairman locked the doors at 1:30 preventing at least two caucus participants at 11:34 and 11:40 from entering.  He stated that the rules were to close the doors at 11:30.  Immediately stated that I was informed that the doors were to close at 12:00 but was rebuffed.”
    •           “The Precinct 16 Caucus Chair...ordered the doors locked at 11:30 am. not 12 noon. I objected and called the hotline, and [the Chair] relented, but not before many voters were prevented from entering.”
    Obstructing Voter Access
    Voters have given these reports, which are representative of others received like them:
    •           “While my precinct ran well due to the fact that we had only 24 caucus members present, there was mass confusion in the five other larger precincts at the same site.  Obama people were being told my Clinton supporters that they could not register because the sign-in sheet was only for Clinton voters.”
    •           “In Precinct 21, a Democratic worker …(who was clearly for Hillary) refused to register Obama supporters and said she was only registering Hillary supporters.”
    •           “Someone told Obama supporters they had to wait until 11:30 to enter because Republicans were voting.  (A Clinton supporter in front of the School.)  There were many Clinton supporters telling Obama supporters to leave.  A Clinton supporter took our bottles of water, and then tried to take our box containing precinct packet and voter registration forms. I had to run her down in the crowd.  By the time I located her (with help)she had thrown things out, but kept the water bottles in her large bag.”
    •           “Almost immediately, I was told by a couple of other Obama precinct leaders, whose names I don't know, that the Hillary people were turning our supporters away, by asking to see their ID's and telling them they weren't valid.”
    Improper Handling of Voter Preference Cards
    Voters have given these reports, which are representative of others received like them:
    •           “The next controversial issue involved the voter cards disappearing into the Clinton camp, so that the Edwards and Obama people were left with no cards.  When we asked them to give us back some cards, we then noticed that they had all been pre-marked for Clinton.”
    •           “We circled Obama and were given a small slip of paper with our names and no voting ballot.  We were told they were out of ballots. How convenient.  It wasn't until later than I realized the Hillary group had ballots.”
    •           “I personally observed one of Hillary's precinct captains taking up the ballot of the voter before the caucusing started. When the delegates were moved to the other side of the room she could not find all of the people that she took their ballots she then put them in her purse, further another one of Hillary supporter collected ballots as well and she had a ballot where some one was voting for Obama she fold it up in her hand. I call her on this matter she stated that she could not find the person that it belong to.”
    Process for Conducting Review
    This is a smattering of the reports we have received.  Emerging from them is a disturbing picture of rules violations, discriminatory treatment of voters, bullying and disrespectful behavior toward those from other campaigns, the mishandling of preference cards, and failure to follow the process specified under the rules for the conduct of the vote count.
    To support the inquiry that we are asking that you conduct, we will provide them these reports, unedited or redacted, to the Party, subject to an agreement protecting the privacy of voters who have given these accounts.  We are confident, however, that with the benefit of these protections, these voters, if asked, will give their first-hand recollections directly to party counsel and representatives.
    We would ask that this process be expedited.  It is crucial that the Party enforce its rules.  And, in the interests of all voters, any and all questions about misconduct at the Caucuses should be conclusively and clearly addressed so that what seems to have occurred in Nevada on January 19 will not be repeated.
    We stand ready to support and cooperate in this inquiry, and hope and expect that the same support and cooperation will be forthcoming from the Clinton campaign and any and all others with relevant information.
    Very truly yours,
    Robert F. Bauer
  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Sorry for the long post Kari!

    But we shouldn't forget that overall, despite the nice experience in Reno, the handling of the caucus in Nevada was a sad day for democracy in many ways.

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    I already responded to Jesse's post with my negative views of the caucus system. I had no idea the NV caucus cost that much. Just think of all the candidates we could elect for that amount.

    The McGvoern Fraiser commission in 1970 mandated primaries or caucuses for delegate conventions instead of state conventions. In '72, most states still had caucuses, but that soon changed, and most of the Southern caucus states switched to primaries for their big "Super Tuesday" in 1988.

    For whatever reason, many of the western states still have caucuses, including WA and ID. That could be because in the past the DNC (and likely RNC) tried to crack down on states that had open primaries, virtually forcing them to switch to a caucus system. Yet, the DNC seems to have relaxed that rule, as there seem to be a lot of open primaries, and even party rules in caucus states tend to allow voters to register at the door, which makes it essentially an open process.

    I think that with caucuses, you have too much of a chance of Chicago style politics taking control of the process, as Matthew documented.

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    One belated thought, I remember former DPO chair, Marc Abrams floating an OR caucus idea at a meeting in the mid 90's. I asked OSU Poli Sci prof, Bill McClengahan, who told me that the OR constitution mandates that OR has a primary for presidential candidates. I've never checked to confirm, though.

  • LT (unverified)

    Grant, it wouldn't surprise me if the Oregon constitution mandates primaries. When Packwood resigned, there was some investigation of caucus vs. primary to choose nominees (dep. on when the election date was, I think). The thing that made people leery of caucuses (outside of some people's experience with nominating caucuses in other states) is that it rewards people with lots of time and organizational skill.

    Check into the history of 1984 Wisconsin delegate selection to find out why people prefer primaries. It was one reason the Fairness Comm. was set up at the 1984 convention--Mondale people didn't like how Wisc. did their primary and demanded delegates be chosen by caucus instead. Mondale was saying that the procedure used in Wisc. for decades wasn't good enough for 1984, hence the cry to members of the Fairness Comm. to "let Wisconsin be Wisconsin".

    In a state not accustomed to caucuses, how many sites would there have to be? One per county, legislative district, pct? Surely people from Lincoln County and Marion County (both in 5th Cong. Dist.) shouldn't have to travel to one cong. dist. caucus site in winter--or even Spring given the price of gas!

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    I spoke to Professor McClengahan, who said that OR was the first state to establish a presidential primary in 1910, one with candidate preference anyway. Wisconsin selected delegates through a primary a few years earlier, but the delegates could vote for whoever they wished. Until 1972, OR's delegates, elected directly on the primary ballot, were obligated to vote for the winner at the convention first ballot- thus a "winner take all" primary. Starting in '76, OR and most other states (for Dems anyway) switched to proportional representation of delegates, with delegates selected at CD and state conventions after the primary.

    I don’t know the exact language of the 1910 law and am not sure if it was statutory or if it amended the constitution.

    I don't see OR ever even attempting to try a caucus, anyway, nor should we in my view.

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