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Caucus chaos demonstrates why Nevada needs a primary

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is said to have described government thus: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities.”

And while the Nevada Republican Party gamely tried to run a presidential caucus Saturday, it’s clear now the government must step in.

In short, it’s time to abandon the problem-plagued caucus system and start holding primary elections.

The primary has many advantages, not least of which is that we’ll get accurate results of the election the same day votes are cast, and not some 30 hours later.

Most county parties performed fairly well Saturday, but not in Nevada’s largest county — Clark — home to the majority of precincts. Party leaders decided to re-count and certify all ballots before announcing the winner, and they were woefully unprepared for the magnitude of the task. This despite the fact that turnout — projected at around 55,000 — was actually much less, around 33,000.

I’m no math whiz, but if one knows the number of precincts, an estimated turnout, and the time it takes for a team to count and re-count a ballot, it would seem fairly easy to calculate how many teams one would need to finish by the party-set deadlines.

Republican leaders said they didn’t want a repeat of Iowa’s caucus disaster, when the wrong winner was announced on election night. But it seems to me a false alternative to be forced to choose between accuracy and speed. With the proper preparation and organization, why can’t we have both?

Indeed, we can: In a primary system. The advantages are obvious: Everybody is familiar with primary voting. It takes minutes, not hours. It happens on a Tuesday, so Orthodox Jews and Seventh-day Adventists are not denied the franchise.

Yes, there are downsides. Parties don’t get lists of participants for their databases, and voters don’t get to argue with their neighbors about politics.

But it’s a presidential election, not a block party. 

Another downside: the cost to taxpayers. Secretary of State Ross Miller estimates that an early primary exclusively for presidential candidates would cost between $1 million and $2 million. (The primary can’t be combined with a moved-up state and local primary, either, because the date has to be flexible to avoid other states trying to jump ahead of Nevada. In fact, to be most effective, Nevada would need to adopt a system similar to New Hampshire’s, which gives the secretary of state total discretion to set a primary date).

Yes, that would mean three elections in presidential years: an early primary for president; a regular primary for state and local offices in June and the general election in November. But the prestige of being third in the nation — and the fact that it would happen just once every four years — makes the cost worth it. A substantial filing fee for the major-party candidates could defray some of the cost, too.

Most important, the vote would be overseen and tabulated by professionals, not political parties, which must by now realize that conducting elections is harder than it looks. And lest Republicans think I’m being too hard on them, let’s not forget the allegations of fraud and favoritism that plagued Democratic caucuses in 2008.

It was a Democratic president, Martin Van Buren, who said “It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.” It’s time for Nevada to do the job of selecting presidential candidates right. It’s time for a primary.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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