LAS VEGAS (AP) — After back-to-back fiascos in Nevada and Iowa, the term “caucus” may be on its way to becoming a bad word in the GOP lexicon.
Those troubled contests cast a shadow over the volunteer-run presidential selection process as the GOP’s caucus season begins Tuesday night in Colorado and Minnesota. In all, 10 states are scheduled to hold caucuses in February and March.
For now, national Republicans have shied away from calling for the end of caucuses in favor of straight-vote primaries. Critics say it is only a matter of time before the caucus troubles become too great to ignore.
“The average voter does not want to go to an event that is going to take one, two or three hours,” said Republican state Assemblyman Pat Hickey of Reno. “In that regard, I think it doesn’t work well, especially in states like Nevada.”
Nevada Republicans finally released the results of their Saturday caucuses early Monday morning, after volunteers had stayed up for nearly 48 hours counting and recounting votes in a contest that saw only 33,000 votes cast, about 9 percent of the state’s registered Republicans. Party leaders said they wanted to take their time to avoid another Iowa.
Last month, Iowa initially called its first-in-the-nation presidential race for Mitt Romney by eight votes, only to have allegations of impropriety surface. Two weeks later Iowa Republicans announced that — oops — Rick Santorum had actually won by 34 votes. The head of the Iowa GOP said he would resign.
Republican Party leaders in other states said they were confident that they could avoid the problems that defined the Nevada and Iowa contests, but they also acknowledged that a caucus system requires much more work than a primary, which is overseen by the government.
In Colorado, Republicans have been holding weekly training sessions to explain the complicated voting process to volunteers. In Minnesota, Republicans say they will release the results from each precinct as they are counted.
“We’ve done a lot of training for our caucus conveners,” said Heather Rubash, spokeswoman for the Minnesota GOP, which held presidential caucuses in 2004 and 2008. “It hasn’t been a problem in the past.”
Caucuses are generally party-run nomination contests that require voters to show up at a certain time and listen as their neighbors discuss the candidates. Only once that’s done do voters get to cast their ballots.
In most cases, there are no voter machines to tally up the results, no professional staff to ensure every vote is counted equally and no dashing into the local polling place to vote between errands.
All of that adds up to an error-prone system that can leave voters confused and disinterested in voting and, in some cases, on the alert for potential fraud.
“It’s a lot of folks to train and a lot of information,” said Chuck Poplstein, executive director of the Colorado GOP. “It’s not an easy situation if you are just walking into it.”
In Nevada, hints of caucus trouble were evident long before voters showed up Saturday. Party leaders changed the date twice and allowed the county parties to set their own rules, which meant there was no uniform voting method or start time across the state.
On Election Day, there were many voting locations where even the people in charge had never attended a caucus before. Some voters were turned away after showing up late thinking they could cast a ballot anytime throughout the day, as they might in a primary.
The real trouble began as party leaders started to release results late Saturday night. GOP leaders in Clark County, where more than half of all Republicans live and the home of Las Vegas, said they planned to stay up all night counting the ballots. The results were finally released just before 2 a.m. local time Monday.
“I might be the only person left in the Nevada Republican Party that still likes caucuses,” acting GOP Chairman James Smack said during the vote count.
Romney won the contest, as he did in 2008. Newt Gingrich finished a distant second, followed closely by Ron Paul. Santorum came in last.
It was the second time Nevada’s GOP caucuses crashed and burned. In 2008, only 44,000 voters showed up and state leaders vowed to do better. Instead, turnout dropped by more than 10,000 voters Saturday. There are 471,000 registered Republicans in Nevada.
Critics said the arcane caucus format might be to blame for the low turnout.
“The conversations I’ve heard for over a year is: ‘Why are we still doing this caucus? Nobody likes it,'” said Cheryl Van Ocker, a GOP activist in rural northern Nevada. “They would like to have a primary.”
So why would any state choose to hold a caucus instead of a traditional primary?
For one thing, caucuses generally don’t cost taxpayers a cent, a big plus among tea party Republicans concerned about excessive government spending. While public dollars are used to cover the cost of primaries, caucuses are paid for by each local and state political party.
Proponents claim caucuses also create a sense of community, allowing neighbors to civilly debate politics and elect precinct captains who can go on to make important decisions within the state party.
“It connects and energizes people in a way that going into the voting booth doesn’t,” said Jill Derby, a former Nevada Democratic chairwoman who hosted the state’s successful Democratic caucuses in 2008.
Still, Derby cautioned: “It takes tremendous organization. You have to do the work to train people.”
On Saturday, Barbara Vallard, 75, signed into a caucus location in Las Vegas and then stood around, unsure of where she was supposed to go and how she could vote. Told she would have to wait until everyone had signed in before she could cast a ballot, she fretted that she was going to be late for an appointment.
But Vallard, a Romney supporter, said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s good to hear other people’s beliefs,” she said.
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