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Plenty of good reasons for Nevada to adopt a presidential primary election over a caucus

Updated March 31, 2017 - 5:16 pm

CARSON CITY

The one thing both Republican and Democrat voters can seemingly agree upon is that the presidential caucus system is chaotic, time-consuming and Byzantine.

There’s also widespread voter agreement that replacing the caucus with a presidential preference primary would boost turnout, which is emphatically a good thing. Every eligible citizen should register, get educated about the candidates and issues and vote in every election.

That’s why Democratic Las Vegas Assemblyman Nelson Araujo’s Assembly Bill 293 deserves serious consideration in the Legislature. It would create an optional presidential preference primary for either major political party and allow voters to register during early voting or even on the day of the primary election, among other things.

Political parties could still keep the caucus, if they wanted. Democrats in Nevada have been especially successful at building organizing lists based on people who spend a good chunk of a Saturday arguing for their favorite would-be president. Republicans, by contrast, have had less success with the caucus.

A couple bills in the Republican-controlled 2015 session would have switched to a primary.

But it’s not all upside: Nevada won its early place on the Democratic presidential nominating calendar, in part, because it was a caucus state. That early status is what keeps presidential candidates coming to Nevada every four years. (And you thought it was the buffets!)

Not only that, but several people raised questions about the bill, including the cost of the election (especially if Republicans and Democrats decide to hold primaries, but on different days).

In Araujo’s bill, the date of the election isn’t specified. Political parties interested in a primary election would give the state 90 days notice. Election officials testified that’s not enough time to prepare, and said they’d rather the date be fixed in the law.

But Araujo was wise to leave the date open. Although parties typically set the dates for primaries and caucuses, occasionally ambitious states try to jump the calendar. Threats of stripping their delegates of votes — usually hollow and unenforced — are weak sanctions compared to the ability to winnow the presidential field by hosting an early election. The New Hampshire secretary of state has the authority to move the date to prevent being “jumped” by a rival state, thus ensuring New Hampshire will always have the first-in-the-nation primary.

Some people testifying on the bill wondered why the presidential preference was optional, and not mandatory. Araujo said he didn’t want to disrespect the major parties’ preferences. “I think it’s very important not to take away that voice from the central committee,” Araujo said at a hearing Tuesday. Under his bill, Democrats could stick with a caucus, while Republicans could choose a primary instead.

Other issues include costs. With a caucus, political parties foot the bill, since the events are party gatherings run by party rules. In a primary, the state bears the cost, since state and local government workers run things. (This will come as a relief to many people put off by the craziness and chaos of a caucus.)

The same-day registration would also require new equipment, both to register voters and to prevent fraud, local elections officials said.

Clearly, there’s more work to be done. Perhaps some of the costs could be borne by hefty filing fees on presidential candidates. Perhaps a range of dates — no sooner than Jan. 1, but no later than Feb. 28 — could give a bit more certainty while also maintaining flexibility.

But one thing most voters of both parties can agree on: A primary would be better than a caucus.

A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that Nevada switched from a primary system to a caucus system to select presidential nominees.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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