Photo By Dennis Myers The Washoe County Democratic caucuses four years ago were held at Wooster High School, but this year will be broken up into smaller meetings at 80 locations.

So, why caucus at all? What’s all the fuss about? What is a caucus, anyway?

It’s surprising who some of the people are who ask such questions. One prominent Nevada Democrat, for instance: “It’s archaic, like something my mother wants to do.” A primary election, she said, would work better.

In trying to understand this political cult ritual, it helps not to think of it as a presidential selection event. It’s not. It’s a delegate selection event. It takes place in both presidential and non-presidential years and is used to help decide who gets to go to the county and state Democratic and Republican conventions (and, in presidential years, to the national convention). It’s also used to get information from the grassroots on what should go into the parties’ platforms and statements of party policy.

It helps to remember that political parties are basically private organizations like the Red Cross or the Nevada Press Association, not a part of the government. During the progressive era, the political parties were forced to submit to primary elections, but nowhere is it carved in stone that primaries must be used. Nevada held presidential primaries in 1912 (Democrats only), 1976, 1980 and 1996 (Republicans only), but generally the Nevada Legislature has found them to be expensive luxuries. The state pays for primaries, you see, and the political parties pay for caucuses.

What is a caucus? It’s a meeting of the neighborhood—all the people who live in a precinct have the chance to gather together and talk politics.

They’re not actually called caucuses in Nevada, incidentally. The law calls them “precinct meetings.” In the 1940s and ‘50s, they were called “mass meetings,” but caucus is a shorthand term used nationally by the parties. At one time in Nevada, they were held in private homes, which was a nice neighborhoody kind of ritual, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a feeling that it was a little intimidating to go to someone’s house, and so they gradually were moved into public buildings, like schools. (There was also a problem with some homeowners excluding some residents of the precinct who threatened this faction or that faction from winning control.)

In recent years, there have been efforts to hold all of a county’s precinct meetings in a single large hall. In 2004, there were such remarkably large turnouts in the Democratic caucuses that they became unwieldy, particularly in Clark County, where fire marshals made concerned noises. This year in Washoe County, the Republicans will hold the caucuses in six locations, all high schools—four in the valley, one in Incline Village, and one in Gerlach. The Democrats have broken up their caucuses into many smaller meetings. They’ll have more than 80 locations, mostly schools and libraries. The Republican caucuses will begin at 9 a.m. on Jan. 19, the Democrats two hours later.

For those who are disdainful of caucuses in favor of primaries, these really are fascinating little town hall meetings, genuine exercises in democracy. In presidential years, people negotiate with each other, trade votes (“I’m not going to get enough for a delegate to county with Gravel, so if I switch to Edwards …”), make deals, and walk away friends.

Photo By Dennis Myers At the 2004 Washoe Democratic caucuses, Renoite Bill Prezant chats with people in the bleachers of the crowded event.

Washoe County has 410 precincts. Each precinct is allotted a certain number of delegates who can attend the county convention. There was a time when turnout was so sparse, virtually everyone got to go. That’s been less likely to happen in recent years.

In all likelihood, given the attention the early Nevada caucuses are getting this year as a presidential event, most attendees are going to be more interested in the presidential preference activities than platforms or delegate selection.

Getting there
A resident of a precinct must find out her precinct number and show up at its caucus. The Democratic Party has a precinct finder at http://washoedems.org/caucus_ lookup. When we tried using it, it told us “we were unable to match the information you entered to the Democratic Party database.” The Republicans have one at www.nvgopcaucus.com, and it, too, seems to lack plenty of addresses. When an address is entered, it sometimes offers alternative addresses on the same street. (You might want to call the county voter registrar if you don’t want to rely on the party’s functionaries.)

If you’re not registered to vote, they’ll register you at the caucuses, but you need to know your precinct number in order to know which caucus location to attend. County party phone numbers are 827-1900 (Republican) and 829-1699 (Democrat).

In selecting delegates to the county convention, local residents are taking the first step in deciding what presidential candidates will get the state’s votes at the national conventions in Denver (Democratic) and Minneapolis/St. Paul (Republican). At some point during the caucus, all the residents will say which presidential candidate they support or remain uncommitted. Some candidates will not likely meet a minimum threshold of support, whereupon the dickering will begin. If a precinct has four county convention votes, those votes will be allocated to supporters of the leading presidential candidates. A resident of the precinct will have opportunities to switch from a candidate who doesn’t meet the threshold in order to keep alive his hopes of going to the county convention. But there is no requirement that he switch, though he may be treated as uncommitted.

There are variants in this procedure between the two parties, and more can be learned about those differences by checking the two party caucus websites. For instance, the Republican Party website’s “frequently asked questions” seems to indicate that delegates to the county convention are elected before presidential candidate preferences are registered, which could detach the delegates from a sense of loyalty to the candidate who won the precinct. The Democratic process ties presidential preference and delegate selection more closely together.

The Democrats actually posted their caucus rules at www.nvdemscaucus.com/images/draftdelselupdated_oct2007l.pdf. The Republicans did not post their rules, but do have a simple point-by-point explanation of how the caucuses will work at www.washoecountygop.org.

There is one notable failing of the caucus system. While voting in an election goes on all day, caucuses take place during fixed time periods of a couple of hours or so. The New York Times last week reported on how many people are excluded from the Iowa caucuses, which are held in the evening: “Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty.”

In Nevada’s 24-hour economy, with daytime caucuses, the problem [of excluding interested people] is compounded. No one who works a Saturday day shift, among others, can attend. It’s part of the political fortunes of war.

The parties say their caucuses will be relatively short, an hour or so. Perhaps, but they have often lasted longer in earlier years, so participants might allow an open-ended period of time. Besides, some folks might want to continue some of those conversations with people they meet at a nearby coffee shop or bar. Politics can be infectious.

Caucuses—and for that matter politics—may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the caucuses only happen every other year. Besides, if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to meet some of the people in your neighborhood.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...