Nevada caucuses set to kick off amid fears of an Iowa debacle repeat

Image: Nevada Caucus
Volunteers make preparations prior to the arrival of voters at a Nevada caucus voting site at Coronado High School in Henderson, Nevada, on Feb. 22, 2020. Copyright David Ryder Reuters
Copyright David Ryder Reuters
By Adam Edelman with NBC News Politics
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A new early-voting system, high turnout and a never-before-used digital tool could all contribute to caucus chaos.

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LAS VEGAS — The Nevada caucuses, the third contest in the 2020 Democratic primary and a first test of candidates' support among a more diverse electorate, will kick off here soon, with Democrats across the nation closely watching how voters choose — and hoping the event doesn't resemble the disaster that struck Iowa's nominating contest earlier this month.

The call to caucus officially starts at precincts around the state at 3:00 p.m. ET (12:00 p.m. local time), with check-in having begun two hours earlier.

What happens after doors close is anyone's guess.

The actual caucusing will conclude within the hour, and in theory, results could be available a short time after that.

But, politics watchers, citing the debacle in Iowa, aren't necessarily counting on it.

That's because Nevada, like Iowa, is introducing in this year's caucuses several new elements that many experts believe will cause issues for precinct volunteers on the ground.

Caucuses are run by state political parties that rely entirely on volunteers. Among the elements that could contribute to complications in Nevada are: A new early-voting system, high turnout and a never-before-used digital tool being used to process results.

During an early-voting window from Saturday through Tuesday (a new feature for the Nevada caucus), there was a ranked-choice system in place. Early voters had to mark their first choice and at least two additional choices, so that their votes can be realigned if their top choices don't make the cut. The early votes then get routed to the voter's home precinct, so those votes will be counted alongside neighbors who are caucusing in person on Saturday.

On Saturday, however, the voting in the Nevada caucuses will proceed much like Iowa's did. At most Democratic caucus locations, candidates must have support from at least 15 percent of caucusgoers in each precinct to be considered viable. Once all the attendees finish their first alignment, those who supported candidates who met the viability threshold are locked in and cannot change their preference. Those who supported nonviable candidates can realign with a viable candidate in the second round.

With those results, a formula awards delegates to viable candidates by precinct. Candidates have to hit the 15 percent threshold both in congressional districts and statewide to receive a share of the state's delegates. There are 36 pledged delegates at stake in the state.

The Nevada Democratic Party, however, said it will be using a digital tool they are calling a "caucus calculator" to help process the results. According to state party officials, the tool is a Google Forms program that has been pre-loaded with early vote results specific to that precinct. It's also pre-loaded with formulas that will be used to calculate delegate allocation.

Party officials have repeatedly said that nothing that was used during the Iowa caucuses — including the smartphone app that caused a significant delay in reporting results due to a "coding issue" — will be used during the Nevada caucuses. Officials also said they had independent security experts test the process, but could not say what the testing looked like. If the iPads fail for any reason, the volunteers will use paper backups.

Caucus volunteers will call in results to the state Democratic Party via a "secure, dedicated hotline."

Complicating matters is an expectation of high turnout — meaning the sheer amount of work to be done will be enormous — along with the question of how secure the iPads and the digital tool they contain are.

The Nevada Democratic Party announced this week that about 75,000 residents participated in early voting. By comparison, total Democratic turnout was about 84,000 for the 2016 Nevada caucus, when there was not early voting. In 2008, when there also was not early voting, turnout was 118,000.

In anticipation of problems, the Democratic National Committee is going to extra lengths to try to avoid a breakdown in the caucus process that could delay the reporting of results on Saturday.

Nevada Democrats have hired a professional call center with 200 paid operators and dedicated reporting lines to help take in results from caucus sites around the state, diverging from Iowa where lightly trained volunteers manned the phones and reported chaos and jammed phoned lines.

The Democratic National Committee also dispatched some three dozen staffers to the state to help with everything from volunteer recruitment to technical assistance, while another team in Washington will assist with data processing. And DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who stayed away from Iowa on caucus day, will be on the ground here Saturday.

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Perez, however, refused earlier this week to commit to releasing the results of the caucus Saturday after the contest concluded, telling The Associated Press he prized accuracy over speed. "We're going to do our best to release results as soon as possible, but our North Star, again, is accuracy," Perez said.

Regardless of any potential complications, Saturday's caucuses could end up being a knockout round for several candidates who have held on through the first two nominating contests in predominantly-white Iowa and New Hampshire.

Polls show Bernie Sanders to be the front-runner heading into Saturday, with Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar, all in the hunt. Mike Bloomberg, surging in national surveys beforea rocky debate performance this week, is skipping the first four states and won't be on the ballot here.

The state also marks a critical test of each candidates' strength with non-white voters.

Nevada's Democratic caucus electorate in 2016 was 59 percent white, 19 percent Latino and 13 percent black, according to entrance polls. Latinos form a large part of the electorates in delegate-rich states like California and Texas, which vote on Super Tuesday on March 3. Black voters have propelled every Democratic nominee to the prize since 1992.

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