Nevada’s caucuses to leave many out

Steven Forman would love to participate in Nevada’s Jan. 19 presidential caucuses. But as an observant Jew, he can’t vote on a Saturday.

“I just think it’s totally disrespectful,” Forman, a salesman in Las Vegas, said of the caucuses’ timing. “Would they have it on a Sunday? Of course not.”

He’s one of many who will be left out of the caucus, which requires on-time, in-person participation and has been criticized as undemocratic as a result. Unlike a primary, a caucus is a neighborhood political meeting, not an all-day election; there is no early or absentee voting.

Those who strictly observe Jewish law don’t work on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and that includes voting.

The Republican caucuses are at 9 a.m. on that Saturday, with the Democratic caucuses at 11 a.m.

Both parties require people to be in caucus locations in the vicinity of their homes for a couple of hours to participate. The Democrats make an exception for workers on the Strip.

The date falls during the NFL playoffs and in a three-day weekend. The following Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a public holiday.

The caucuses are Nevadans’ only chance to weigh in on the presidential nominating process. Presidential candidates will not be on the August Nevada primary ballot, and the parties’ nominees are expected to be settled by then anyway.

The format is modeled after Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, which this year were held on a Thursday evening. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who came in third among Democrats in Iowa, suggested the format wasn’t fair to working people and soldiers.

“There are a lot of Iowans who are in the military,” she said. “They were in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else serving our country. … And there are a lot of people who work at night, people who are on their feet, people who are taking care of patients in a hospital or waiting on a table in a restaurant or maybe in a patrol car, keeping our streets safe.”

The Nevada Democratic and Republican parties said more workers will be able to participate in the caucuses here because they are on a Saturday. They said they are working with employers to encourage them to let people take time off to caucus. They acknowledged that some people won’t be able to attend but said there are positives to the caucus process to be weighed alongside its drawbacks.

“Unfortunately, in a caucus, some people are just going to be left out,” said Zac Moyle, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “But a caucus is also about educating people about the party.”

Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, said, “State law has required Nevada’s political parties to hold caucuses for decades.” But no previous caucus has come this early in the political calendar or received as much attention.

“Certainly, we’ve seen this year the caucus has motivated many people to participate who might not normally be involved. … There are some limitations to a caucus, but we are trying to make it as accessible as possible.”

The Democrats have reached out to chambers of commerce across the state, both to teach their members how to caucus and to urge them to allow workers to participate. Unions have reached out to their industries.

Nevada has a law that allows workers to leave work to vote if it’s not possible for them to vote in a primary or general election before or after work. But it doesn’t apply to the caucuses, as one state worker found out.

“I planned on being there. I was excited about it,” said the worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation at work. But when she asked to take the time off, her manager said all of the vacation time was taken by people going out of town for the three-day weekend and handed her a memo from the state Department of Personnel explaining that the civil leave statute didn’t apply.

“It may not technically be an election, but we are picking our delegates,” the worker said. “Our secretary of state is on TV every day telling us we as Nevadans should be there. I understand the needs of the office, but I was disappointed.”

Most state offices are closed on Saturdays, but state troopers, corrections officers and some Department of Motor Vehicles offices are on duty.

The state personnel director, Todd Rich, said the memo wasn’t intended to discourage state workers from caucusing. “We were asked about it, and we provided information we received from the secretary of state,” he said. “We would hope that managers in different agencies and departments would work with employees to allow them to attend.”

Secretary of State Ross Miller is indeed all over television in a public-service announcement urging Nevadans to caucus. The elections deputy at the secretary of state’s office, Matt Griffin, said it pained him to have to explain that under the law, the caucus isn’t an election.

“Technically, what you’re doing in a caucus is not voting,” he said. “I hate to have to say that to the public, but it’s a presidential preference test. It’s strictly a legal position; obviously, the secretary’s position is that he encourages everybody to allow the time off to participate.”

The casinos will be buzzing for the three-day weekend, but they said they are bending over backward to let their workers caucus. Members of the Culinary union, which includes Strip workers, are expected to be a force in the caucus. The union is set to endorse a Democratic candidate today.

The Democrats have caucus sites at nine Strip casinos that workers can go to instead of their home precincts. The union said there should be enough workers who aren’t interested, or come from different parties, to keep the properties staffed.

The casinos are encouraging participation. “We would love for as many people to participate as possible,” said Alan Feldman of MGM Mirage. “We’re only asking that they coordinate with their superior, so we don’t have an entire department empty out.”

Lori Nelson of Station Casinos said the chain, whose properties are off the Strip and not unionized, is distributing a letter to employees telling them how they can participate in the caucuses. “There’s a level of interest, but nothing that concerns us at a staffing level,” she said.

The flip side of who can’t participate is who can. Republicans must be registered with their party already, but Democrats allow people to show up and register Democratic at the caucus and don’t require identification.

That has prompted concern that Republicans could try to crash the event or that those not eligible to vote, such as noncitizens or out-of-state residents, might sign up.

Searer, of the Democratic Party, said Nevada’s practice is the same as Iowa’s in that regard. “There’s often been concern (in Iowa) that there might be sabotage, with Republicans trying to participate or people from other states, but they just haven’t seen evidence of that,” she said.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2919.

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