The Nevada caucus is less than a month away — and some political observers are concerned voters won’t show up.
The state will be the third to vote on a Democratic presidential candidate on February 22, after Iowa and New Hampshire, but Nevada has traditionally suffered from low levels of turnout.
According to a report by Nonprofit VOTE and the US Elections Project, Nevada ranked 40th in terms of voter engagement during the 2016 presidential election.
Fred Lokken, chair of the Political Science Department at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, believes the caucus system itself can discourage potential voters.
“They hear primary versus caucus, they don’t know what a caucus is,” he said. “That tends to dissuade them from participating.”
To participate in the caucus, which is a neighborhood meeting among registered Democrats, voters have to show up in person at their designated precinct location to argue in favor of their preferred candidate. Beginning at noon on Caucus Day, they will sort themselves into groups according to who they support, and then will be counted by volunteers. If a given candidate doesn’t receive enough votes to qualify in the first round, their supporters can decide to join another group — or try to convince supporters of another non-viable candidate to join them.
Alana Mounce, executive director of the NV Dems, believes the precinct caucuses are a good opportunity for the party to organize supporters ahead of the general election.
“The caucus is an important party-building opportunity,” she said.
Since each precinct caucus is led by volunteers who have been trained by the party, they’ll be on the ground and ready to get out the vote in November.
Mounce also explained that, since Nevada has a relatively transient population, the caucus meetings can be a chance for registered Democrats to meet their neighbors and build relationships.
Another factor that could impact turnout is the 2016 Nevada State Democratic Convention, which was marred by accusations of favoritism from supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Their complaints stemmed from a decision to bar dozens of Sanders delegates from voting after party officials declared they hadn’t registered in time.
While a PolitiFact analysis found no clear evidence of meddling, Sanders supporters levelled charges of corruption against the party after the convention voted to nominate Hillary Clinton.
For Lokken, the early voting option has the potential to increase turnout — if the party can educate voters on the process in time.
Early voting allows people to select between three and five favorite candidates privately, using an app on party-owned tablets. They also have to record their choices on a paper preference card, which will serves as a manual backup.
“This will feel more like an election,” Lokken said. “Especially for older voters, who don’t like the caucus system, I think we are going to see a different voter showing up because of the early voting as long as they can get the word out.”
According to Mounce, growing turnout is the whole point: This will be the first time a caucus in any election includes the option to vote early, she said, because it’s a popular option among Nevada voters.
“Previously, it was a one day event with the precinct caucuses starting at the same time,” she said. “We have dramatically expanded that process with four days of early voting.”
Mounce added that the process itself should also give more people the chance to weigh in, because they can “arrive, check in, select their preferences and leave” within a few minutes, rather than committing to the hours it can take for a precinct caucus.
Early voting for the Nevada caucus will be available at more than 80 locations across the state between Saturday, February 15 and Tuesday, February 18.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the rules for non-viable candidates in the caucus. Supporters of a non-viable candidate can decide to join another group or try to convince supporters of another non-viable candidate to join them.
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