“As the first diverse early state and a key battleground state, Nevada plays a crucial role in the presidential nominating process, making our state a bellwether for the direction of the country. We’re beyond excited to have an incredible and diverse slate of candidates competing in our First in the West Caucus in 2020,” says William McCurdy II, Nevada State Democratic chair.
For years, I’ve heard people complain about Nevada’s presidential caucuses, held every four years. I’ve even heard people say they liked it better when we had a presidential primary. It’s true that a caucus is more complicated than a primary election. It’s not true that we usually had a presidential primary in Nevada. Here’s some history about that.
In 1912, the Nevada Democratic Party held the first presidential primary in Nevada history. It was also the last presidential primary for 64 years. In 1953, the Nevada State Legislature approved a presidential primary, but none was held. In 1969, the Legislature approved a bill allowing a presidential primary, but it was vetoed by Gov. Paul Laxalt.
In 1975, the Legislature again approved a presidential primary, held May 25, 1976. State taxpayers pay for primaries, and the 1976 primary was twice as expensive as legislators had expected. One more presidential primary was held in 1980, and the Legislature then abandoned the idea. It gave the responsibility for choosing candidates back to the state parties, since the caucus system is funded by the parties, not the state (Online Nevada Encyclopedia).
Nevada holds a primary in June for federal, state and local offices, but presidential candidates are not included. The 1976 and 1980 presidential primaries were separate elections. So people yearning for the “good old days” of presidential primaries are wishing for something that happened just twice in our lifetimes.
Presidential primaries are like other elections; a person goes to the polls, casts a vote and leaves. A caucus is more like a town hall meeting. This year’s Democratic caucuses will be held Feb. 22. Voters meet at designated locations and gather together with other voters from the same precincts. Through the caucus process, delegates are chosen by a mathematical process to represent the various candidates.
These delegates then go to the county conventions April 18, where delegates are elected to go on to the Nevada Democratic State Convention on May 30. At the state convention, 36 delegates will be elected; these then go to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, where the Democratic nominee for president will be chosen.
For those unable to attend the regular caucus, an innovation this year is early voting, which will be held Feb. 15 to 18. At the early voting sites, voters select their presidential choices. These choices will be recorded and included in the count during the caucus. Early voters can then attend the caucus but can’t vote again.
Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucuses used to be held in the spring. Few people attended because by then a presidential candidate was usually already chosen and Nevada’s voice didn’t matter. After the 2004 presidential election, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., argued that Nevada’s caucus should be early in the process. He said that Nevada was a perfect microcosm of America. The Democratic National Committee agreed, and now Nevada is the third nominating contest in America after Iowa and New Hampshire, and “First in the West.”
Because of this change, in 2008 about 1,000 to 1,200 voters attended Churchill County’s Democratic caucus. The caucus was held Jan. 19 at the Churchill County fairgrounds and several precincts had to meet outside because of the crowd. The 2012 Churchill County caucus had 76 attendees since President Barack Obama was running for re-election basically unopposed. The 2016 caucus on Feb. 20 had several hundred attendees.
The 2020 caucus gives Democrats the chance to choose their preferred candidate for president. In contrast, the Nevada Republican Party canceled its caucus this year. President Donald Trump has two opponents, former Gov. Bill Weld and former Rep. Joe Walsh, but the Nevada State Republican Party couldn’t take the chance of upsetting Trump. It, along with Republican leaders in several other states, decided to cancel its caucus. Sorry, Republicans; you get no voice.
A caucus is more work than a primary, but it gives people a chance to discuss the issues. Those who don’t want to participate can choose early voting. Every Democrat should make their wishes known. That’s what democracy is all about. A caucus isn’t simple, but it’s worth it. Let your voice be heard!
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.