The Three Types of People You Meet at a Caucus
HENDERSON, Nev. — One voter was under the mistaken impression that he had come to a primary, not a caucus. Another had planned to vote for former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, only to discover he was not on the ballot. And a third had a multipart procedural question for the volunteer running his precinct caucus at Coronado High School.
“If I understand correctly,” the voter said, “everyone will decide on who they’re for, and then you’ll tell us the data about how votes from the early voting breaks down, and then we’ll add the totals, and anything above 13 for any candidate will be considered viable?”
Well. Kind of.
Caucuses are at once wondrous things — democracy at its most granular and visceral — and at the same time confusingly complicated exercises in political anachronism. Only a handful of states still use them. And after the debacle over counting and reporting votes in Iowa earlier this month raised questions about whether caucuses even make sense any more, Nevada was determined to prove that its process would be smooth and effective.
“It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us to make sure we are running an open and transparent caucus with plenty of ways to verify that a person showed up and voted,” said Mandie McCurdy, a site leader at Coronado, which performed the impressive and messy high-wire act of holding simultaneous caucuses for 13 separate precincts on Saturday.
As she tweeted this month, exhorting people to volunteer in Nevada in order to rehabilitate the Democrats in the eyes of a skeptical country: “Do you want to avoid the caucus in NV making the Dems looking like they’re hosting a nationwide Fyre Fest?”
In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Alice, after falling down the rabbit hole, finds herself amid a group of damp animals who, unable to decide the question of how to get dry, decide to hold a caucus to figure it out. It involves running around aimlessly for about half an hour, until the Dodo calls out, “The race is over!” At that point, no one knows who won, so everyone gets a prize.
It was not that chaotic on Saturday in Henderson, if at times it seemed that way. The high school was awash in voters, volunteers, and people supporting one candidate or another. Most of the precincts convened in the school’s classrooms, or in meeting rooms, or in the cafeteria, itself home to three separate caucuses taking place in different corners of the room at the same time.
At least one precinct met in the hallway when it found itself locked out of its designated classroom.
Precinct 1672 — a whopping 25 voters, though 59 others had already cast their preferences in early voting before Saturday — met in Room 210. The voters duly took their places at the students’ desks overlooking the blackboard. The regular teacher — Ms. Moss, according to a sign on the door — had written some vocabulary words from “Macbeth” on the blackboard. Industrious, credulous, laudable, avaricious, abjure and sanctity — all could apply, in their way, to various aspects of the Democratic candidates’ campaigns for the party nomination.
The caucus attracted three types of people: the democracy-in-action proselytizers who were thrilled to be there; the resigned skeptics who said they thought caucuses were silly but realized they had no other choice, if they wanted to vote in Nevada; and the thoroughly bewildered, who had no clue what they were supposed to do.
“I’m very nervous, and I don’t know what is happening,” said David Dial, 33, a nurse who had recently moved to Henderson from Miami. Wearing an Andrew Yang T-shirt even though Mr. Yang is no longer running for president, Mr. Dial pronounced the caucus process “weird.”
“In Florida, it’s a lot easier,” he said. “You just go and vote for someone.”
But across the room, Miriam Melton-Villanueva, a history professor, could not stop praising the meeting, the voting, the chance to engage politically with people she might never have met otherwise.
“The caucus system is the best,” she said. “This is us voting with our hearts and participating with our neighbors.”
The meeting settled down, with Connie Fielder, a retired elementary school teacher, presiding. She had undergone hours of training with the state Democratic Party, both in person and online.
She had checked that her party-issued iPad, which would perform the complex mathematical calculation used to decide how many delegates each candidate would get, was functioning and fully powered up. She had in front of her an exact script the party had given her for how to run the meeting. (“They’ve emailed the devil out of us,” Lewis Williams, a nurse who was overseeing the proceedings in the cafeteria, said earlier. “I think this is a very transparent process, as long as you bring your glasses.”)
Ms. Fielder joked that when she signed up for the job, “I didn’t realize it would involve public speaking.”
“I would like to call the caucus to order,” she said. “This is a grass-roots process that affords all of us an equal opportunity to participate and have our voices heard.”
After a number of housekeeping measures, including one in which the voters agreed to treat one another with kindness and respect and Ms. Fielder explained the formula the party uses to determine how many votes a candidate needs to be viable — that is, to receive any delegates at all — the voting began.
Ms. Fielder asked everyone to form “candidate preference groups” by getting up and physically joining together with like-minded people in support of their candidate.
It was less a choreographed minuet than a scrum in which everyone rushed into the middle of the room before gradually breaking off into little satellite groups, like clumps of mercury rolling off into balls. After the first round of voting, 11 people had voted for Senator Bernie Sanders; six for former Mayor Pete Buttigieg; five for Senator Elizabeth Warren; and two for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. One undecided person stood in the corner by himself.
Clicking some buttons on her iPad, Ms. Fielder than revealed the results of the early voting and added those early votes to the in-person votes, giving Mr. Sanders a total of 29, Mr. Buttigieg 15, Mr. Biden 13 and Ms. Warren 10.
“This is where it gets fun,” she said. “Is a candidate viable after the first alignment? As a reminder a group must have as many as … how many?” she asked. “Thirteen!” the room yelled.
That made Ms. Warren unviable, and it meant that all her supporters, as well as the undecided voter, had to move to another part of the room, joining one of the viable candidates. Before that, the caucusgoers from all the groups had a minute to make a speech in defense of their candidate.
After a lot of complicated math that no one seemed to understand involving the early voters and their second-choice preferences and the realignment of the in-person caucus voters, the final vote came in. Mr. Sanders: 36. Mr. Buttigieg: 29. Mr. Biden: 17.
More math followed, Ms. Fielder announced, to determine the number of delegates to the county convention each candidate would receive.
“You’re not using the Iowa app, are you?” someone shouted.
Paul Molloy, a musician and transplanted New Yorker, said he was somewhat mystified by the laborious intricacies of the caucus system, especially after Ms. Fielder explained all the different ways she planned to convey the results to party headquarters — by calling a hotline, by texting in a photo of the voting sheet, and by delivering it in person.
“I kind of like the idea of walking in, sticking a ballot into a ballot box, and then leaving,” he said. On the other hand, he was glad to see people argue so politely, especially at such an angry time.
“To see that people with divergent views can sit in a room and have a civil conversation — that’s really what it should be about,” he said.