About a half hour from the Las Vegas Strip, in a large public high school on the day the state’s Democratic nominating contest, a man stepped up onto the gym bleachers and shouted:
“Let’s make sure we never caucus again!”
“And then,” said Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley, “the whole room erupted, chanting, ‘No more caucus! no more caucus!’”
The man, and Cosgrove, were among the 80,000 or so who sucked it up and made their voice heard during a chaotic Saturday in Nevada last month. Their particular caucus site — El Dorado High School — had all the hallmarks of the process: confusing rules, long lines that seemed to go nowhere, volunteers unprepared to deal with the crush of people who showed up.
Cosgrove came to caucus for Clinton, and while she wasn’t sure who the man on the bleachers supported, they were all united in one shared cause that afternoon. “Everybody was angry,” she said.
Few things in modern electoral politics go as predictably, publicly badly as a high-profile caucuses in America. For people like Cosgrove — interested in fair, well-attended, and fraud-free elections — the caucus system just doesn’t cut it.
“Caucuses are generally low turnout affairs, which can disenfranchise disabled voters, voters who have to work, and those who have to travel,” Rick Hasen, an law professor who mans the Election Law Blog, told BuzzFeed News.
“If we think of these things as elections, they’re very hard to defend,” Rob Ritchie, president of the voter advocacy group FairVote, told BuzzFeed News.
This year’s already offered three disastrous (or nearly disastrous) examples.
First, the “virtual tie” in Iowa between Bernie Sanders and Clinton in Iowa. There were a number of problems: There weren’t enough volunteers; some precincts decided their winners with coin tosses; the results were immediately questioned and the Democratic Party was forced to review them. (The Republican Iowa caucus this time went more smoothly, but in 2012, the wrong winner was initially declared.)
Next, Nevada, where both sides had problems. Democrats showed up to caucus — but many then had to leave to go back to work, the breaks in their shifts not being long enough to account for the long lines and wait times. A few days later, some Republicans reported that sites were running out of ballots and had volunteers in partisan gear handing out ballots without checking IDs first — a central tenet of the Republican playbook for a fair elections. The state also has its own bizarre tie-breaker: high-card draw.
Underpinning the mess is abysmal turnout, caucus critics say. Iowans get the first crack at winnowing the presidential field and are generally pretty plugged into the process. Yet the average turnout for an Iowa caucus is about 20% of the eligible voters, according to data kept by Drake University. The record-shattering 2008 turnout that propelled President Obama to the White House was around 40%, according to the university.
The overwhelming Republican caucus turnout in Nevada this year only about 75,000 caucus-goers, according to NBC News. The Democrats drew out about 80,000, a precipitous drop from 2008’s 120,000. There are 1,203,905 “active voters” in Nevada, per January statistics from the secretary of state’s office.
There’s a good reason for these numbers, even supporters allow. It’s extremely difficult to caucus. The caucuses, party-run, are usually manned by volunteers and and require caucus-goers to arrive at a certain time, or else risk not being counted.
On the Republican side, being counted is (relatively) straight-forward: a paper “ballot.”
Democrats, meanwhile, ask first-time caucus-goers to enter a world unlike any other they’ve ever experienced. Attendees stand in long lines, are counted on the way in, and then stand in various groupings of supporters. Then they’re counted again. The groups then change around based on something called “viability” — a candidate must carry a certain percentage of the caucus-goers to win delegates. They’re counted again. In Iowa, the total number of voters is not reported, just the number of delegates awarded. The process can take hours.
In theory, this is the good part. Democrats are supposed to have reasoned discussions with each other about their candidate of choice, and recruit others to their side through careful deliberation.
“Most caucuses do not feature deliberation, and so any benefit of discussion is no longer relevant,” Hasen said. “They are often run by the parties themselves, and each year we see that the parties are not up to the task: Votes are lost, people are miscounted, vote tallies incomplete.”
Others say the public nature of the vote — Democrats standing with their neighbors, bosses, coworkers — can have a chilling effect. It’s not a secret ballot.
And the process takes time, keeping people from their jobs or religions or other obligations (or, alternatively, their jobs or religions or other obligations keep them from caucusing).
“You look at it now, you can hear lots of groups saying we need a better system,” said Republican Nevada Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus. “This wasn't right, it wasn't fair and it alienated voters. It disenfranchised voters.”
Silberkraus co-sponsored a 2015 bill to get rid of the Nevada caucuses. He declined to criticize the specifics of the Republican caucus in 2016 (the site he ran went very smoothly, he said). But he added that he will likely bring the bill up again in the next legislative session.
That effort, however, has faced resistance — despite Nevada’s difficulties. Those started in 2008, when Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the delegate count to Obama, creating a lot of confusion. Silberkraus and another Republican aimed to turn the caucus into a primary. But officials from both parties worried that changing the process would cost them, after Iowa and New Hampshire’s powerful allies forced national party leaders to penalize Nevada with fewer delegates or an official slot in the nominating calendar well out of the bright lights of the early states. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who helped get his state the first western contest on the calendar in the first place, actively lobbied to kill the proposal. It died, and the 2016 caucuses rolled on.
There are caucus defenders, but even they say the current structure is full of problems. An aide at the Iowa Democratic Party referred caucus process questions to Norm Sterzenbach, a long time vet of Iowa politics and former state party executive director.
The caucuses in Iowa offer the party a chance to do grassroots building, he said, creating lists of new Democratic voters and activists that can be deployed when the general election comes to the swing state. Cell phone numbers and email addresses are collected. Massive new databases are filled with Democrats that the party can call on for volunteering, fundraising, and Get Out The Vote efforts.
Normally, an event that boosts voter registration as much as a contested caucus can would be great news for a voting rights advocate like Cosgrove, a League of Women Voters president. But ballot access is just as important, she said.
“I’m kind of in a weird situation where the group I’m arguing with the most right now are the Democrats,” she said. “The Republicans are on board — ‘let’s get rid of the caucus, let’s put on a primary, it’s fair, it’s easier.’ The Democrats are the ones who are really dragging their feet. And they’re saying weird things like, ‘I usually support access to the ballot and voting rights, but —’ I say no, there’s no ‘but.’ We don’t do ‘but.’”
Still, the party-building aspect of caucuses often goes overlooked by critics, Sterzenbach contended. “The value of a caucus over a primary is ultimately about strengthening a party on the local level,” he said.
The way the Iowa caucus is set up — with candidates having to win delegates at individual sites across the state rather than all at once in a statewide primary — gives voice to voters often ignored by candidates, Sterzenbach said.
“If we only had primaries what would happen is candidates would spend very little time in rural parts of our country,” he said. In Iowa, he added, that would mean no more candidate trips to the far-flung corners of the state. In their place, he warned, would be large rallies in cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
It’s OK that it’s tougher to caucus than it is to vote, Sterzenbach said — it’s actually a good thing, according to the Iowan. Complication is a feature, not a bug, he said.
"The way the Democrats do it, it adds to the level of organization, the preparedness of the campaigns going into it. Because it's a more complex process,” he said. “So you have to spend more time training your volunteers in order to successfully manage that, and that's ultimately good for everybody because it gets them more engaged in the process.”
That all said, Sterzenbach said the current Iowa caucus structure in Iowa is woefully inadequate.
“When they were originally designed, they weren’t built to handle large turnout,” he said. “My personal feeling on this is that the Iowa party, the Nevada party, and the DNC should look at how caucuses are run and managed under a more modern lens.”
Sterzenbach’s suggestions: a system for dealing with absentee caucus-goers, more sites to speed things up, better volunteer trainings, and basic things like sound systems so caucus leaders can be heard and control the chaos.
And end the coin toss thing. He suggests eliminating the use of a coin toss in Iowa except for in the few cases where there is an equal division of supporters in a precinct that awards an odd number of delegates.
“It makes perfect sense in an election, if there’s a tie, coin tosses are often used. But it’s unsettling to the people who show up,” he said. “And this is ultimately a party building exercise, which means when people show up the caucus, we want them to have a good experience. And if they walk away feeling cheated, or the system was against them because of things like coin tosses, then it’s ultimately going to help us in the long run.”
Super Tuesday brings more contested caucuses, and in states where Sterzenbach worries the infrastructure is even less prepared to deal with them than high-profile states like Iowa and Nevada that are more used to big turnout and a lot of scrutiny. (The Colorado Democrats, the Alaska Republicans, and both parties in Minnesota will caucus on Tuesday.) He proposes a top-to-bottom review of caucus procedures everywhere.
Fair Vote’s Richie has long suggested a national primary process to boost participation in the nomination process and create a reliable, predictable system for voters he said will dramatically improve voter turnout. He described his vision in a 2012 op-ed, describing a system where states still winnow the field with whatever system they choose ahead of the national primary.
For now, the type of election run by party leaders in states like Nevada and Iowa is less important than the calendar date those elections fall on. The weird traditions of the nominating process means Iowa and Nevada could lose their place in line if they swapped out their caucus for a primary. Cosgrove says that’s the right thing to do. If Nevada loses its status as “first in the west” because national party leaders can’t handle adding a primary to the early map, she says, so be it.
The romance of the caucus, its promise of quiet deliberation and consensus-building among like-minded party members, is just lost on her entirely.
"When we were all living in the Puritan town and we had a town hall meeting, even those didn't go very well,” she said. “There were people who complained about that. That's why the Puritans gave it up."