Crooked caucus: Electoral antics in Nevada

by Beacon Staff • February 6, 2008

I was an intern with the Hillary Clinton campaign over winter break, stationed in Las Vegas. Two weeks of intensive campaign work led to Jan. 19, the big event: caucus day. Like all interns, I was assigned to "observe" the voting and to monitor the proceedings.,Confusion, dirty dealings, disillusionment: enter Nevada's Democratic caucus.

I was an intern with the Hillary Clinton campaign over winter break, stationed in Las Vegas. Two weeks of intensive campaign work led to Jan. 19, the big event: caucus day. Like all interns, I was assigned to "observe" the voting and to monitor the proceedings. In the event of bias, it was my job to report it, or at least ensure it favored Clinton.

I couldn't have readied myself for the chaotic and improperly-conducted scene I experienced. The national press has a way of covering elections, one that favors simplicity over in-depth analysis of substance. The message coming out of Nevada was superficial and one-dimensional: "Hillary Wins!"

To me, the real story is in the murky details. It's about how a nice idea--people getting out and persuading their neighbors to support a particular candidate-has turned into a broken, chaotic system. Fair and honest elections are the most important element of the democratic process, but you never would have guessed judging from Nevada.

This is how the whole mess transpired.

8:30 a.m. Three and a half hours before the caucuses are set to begin. I arrive at Mack Middle School, the site I'm instructed to monitor. There's concern that a Clinton precinct captain will be disadvantaged because of his lack of fluency in English.

9:00 a.m. Other candidates' precinct captains arrive. We realize that instead of one caucus occurring at Mack Middle, there are actually eight different ones. Questions of space arise while the wait begins for the temporary chairs to arrive. Temporary chairs are (theoretically) non-partisan Democrats in charge of moderating and overseeing. Ideally, they are there to provide order.

9:30 a.m. The temporary chairs have yet to arrive. Hillary's people select their own locations throughout the school.

10:00 a.m. Some temporary chairs appear. Notions of unbiased guidance quickly vanish: the chairs are dressed in Obama and Clinton t-shirts. They immediately separate caucus-goers, choosing different voting locations within the school. Only one of the eight temporary chairs enforces the one-sign-per-candidate rule. Caucus areas soon resemble campaign headquarters. Walls of student art are covered with bland campaign signs.

10:15-10:45 a.m. Confusion. I abandon my assigned caucus and try to assist the hundreds of voters who are unsure where to go. Working with a Washington lawyer who mispronounces "Nevada," I establish a station to point people in the proper direction.

Obama's campaign, fresh on the scene, has no such aids. His supporters grow angry and aggressive when Clinton volunteers refuse to help them.

11:00 a.m. I find a group of Clinton campaigners. They're mulling around in a corner of the gym. There isn't a single Obama voter, nor is there a temporary chair around.

The Clinton group supposes the temporary chair has skipped out. However, the campaign's legal squad quickly figures out that he and a bunch of Obama supporters have set-up in a different room and begun caucusing.

11:10 a.m. The voting initiated prematurely by the Obama people is said to be an honest mistake; the possibility of voter fraud is dismissed. Clinton supporters are now in the room, voting restarts. Clinton trounces Obama three to one, and I leave after those numbers are recorded.

11:40 a.m. Returning to my original caucus, I notice that no paperwork is filled out. A Clinton precinct captain is screaming "10 Obama, six Clinton!" After some snooping, I discover that just one round of voting was taken in the room. Of 78 voters, 32 supported Clinton, 42 Obama, four Edwards.

By caucus rules, the Edwards supporters should have had a chance to realign. It seems they either were not given that opportunity, or they simply refused to take it.

Apparently, someone had done a little math, figuring Obama for 10 of the 16 delegates, and Clinton for the remaining six. With only the temporary chair and a Clinton precinct captain still present, I decide to fill-out the official paperwork. This isn't exactly my role, but the temporary chair-a Clinton supporter-doesn't speak much English; there's no objection.

As I tackle the paperwork, I think how easy it would be to change the results, to give Hillary all the delegates or, less suspiciously, just throw her a delegate or two.

It turns out there's no need. I re-do that math and discover that Clinton in fact deserves one more delegate-meaning seven delegates for Clinton and just nine for Obama. Satisfied with this rightful gain, I record the results.

A flustered Obama supporter approves my calculations, and a fellow Clinton booster telephones them in (another duty meant for a temporary chair). After sealing the results in an envelope, I leave to find out what's going on in the one room that has yet to start caucusing.

12:15 p.m. I enter the room at the same time as two senior staffers, one from the Clinton campaign and one from Obama's. We seize control of the slow-moving caucus. I consider the fact that although this room contains over 150 voters, it will divide a mere three delegates. In comparison, some caucuses with fewer than 40 people were responsible with divvying up 14 delegates.

Before long, the Clinton and Obama staffers are counting their supporters like heads of cattle. There's a brief silence as they both eye a lone Edwards cheerleader. Then-BOOM-like a firework, they descend upon him. After five minutes of vigorous harassment, the Edwards supporter simply walks out.

The three delegates are split: two Clinton, one Obama.

1:30 p.m. I head towards the Planet Hollywood casino, where Clinton delivers a two-minute speech that's reduced to a ten-second sound bite which will be replayed thousands of times across the globe.

That night and into the next day, I will scan the news for stories about the confused caucuses. I will search for the incidents of shady maneuvering. Will there be even small accounts of the havoc I witnessed?

No. There's only one mainstream narrative, repeated over and over, like the endlessly flashing dials of a slot machine: "Hillary Wins!"

What the hell is a caucus?

The caucus is a unique phenomenon in the American electoral process. Unlike traditional primaries-wherein voting is done privately-caucuses are raucus, open events. Participants assemble in a public space and divide into groups based on candidate preference. There is then an extended period of debate, with partisans battling to win last-minute converts.

When caucus officials decide that sufficient time has elapsed, they take a tally. Depending on state and party rules (which are far from uniform), if a candidate fails to reach a "thresh-hold," he or she is disqualified. His or her supporters must then "realign" behind another presidential hopeful, or simply leave.

The remaining candidates are apportioned delegates for the party convention in August based on their total support.

All of this occurs in an atmosphere of confusion and, in many cases, animosity.

Pretty simple, right?

C

aucus Terminology

Temporary Chair

Community member and registered party member empowered to oversee caucus operations. In theory, they should refrain from partisan actions. What exactly qualifies them for this straining and stressful post? A one hour seminar, of course.

Precinct

Geographic division that votes together, usually containing between 40 and 100 households.

Precinct Captain

Campaign official assigned to coordinate supporters' movements and whip up votes.