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    My Experience Volunteering for Hillary Clinton at the Nevada Caucus

    Zoe Dunning

    Zoe Dunning

    As we are all aware, the presidential primary season is well underway. Although California is the most populous state in the union, we have minimal influence in selecting the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees due to our primary being held in June, very late in the cycle. Instead, smaller states with earlier votes—like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada—get tremendous attention from candidates and volunteers, as each campaign looks to build momentum and leverage early results for their fundraising. Personally, I was feeling a little disengaged from the national races until a friend invited me to join her on a trip to Las Vegas to volunteer for Hillary Clinton the weekend of the Nevada caucus.

    I know very little about caucuses. I am used to traditional voting, where you go to a nearby garage or firehouse and anonymously and individually fill out a ballot. You are not allowed to wear any campaign buttons or stickers and, in fact, electioneering is prohibited within 100 feet of a polling location. It’s fairly quick, quiet and isolated.

    A caucus is quite the opposite. Caucuses are generally described as a “gathering of neighbors.” There is no absentee or proxy voting. You instead have to personally show up the day of the caucus and the doors are locked shut at noon. Then you must stay for the length of the caucus procedures, which can take several hours, or you can’t vote. This has opened the caucus process up for criticism in that those who are sick, or work on a Saturday, or are serving in the military out of town are unable to participate and have their vote count. It does not seem the most effective way to encourage participation and drive turnout.

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    I had assumed the Nevada caucus was some holdover from early frontier days, but Nevada has not always held caucuses. Prior to 2008, Nevada usually held primary elections to choose delegates to each party’s national convention. Following the 2004 election, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made a case for Nevada to switch from a late presidential primary (like California) to an early caucus to gain electoral prominence. He believed Nevada was a perfect microcosm for America, given its large minority population and strong labor demographic, and would represent the country’s increasing ethnic diversity and urbanization.

    Harry Reid may have been clever elevating Nevada’s status in the presidential primary process, but our experience on the ground was that most Nevadans are annoyed by it all. Many folks work evenings and late night shifts in Las Vegas and then sleep during the day. We heard quite a bit of grumbling during our canvassing door-to-door and at the caucus itself. People frequently asked how long it would take, why they could not just vote and leave, and bristled at the peer pressure of having to declare their vote so publicly.

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    The day before the caucus, my friend, another woman and I went to 55 assigned addresses of known Hillary supporters to make sure they knew exactly where and when to show up for the caucus and confirm their support. At 75% of our locations, no on answered. Our first “hit” was a young, sunburned man who we had obviously been woken up by our knock. He opened the door shirtless and groggy. We asked if he still planned to go to the caucus and gave him the information. I asked if he was supporting Hillary and his response was, “Of course I am—I’m gay!” We laughed and I reminded him the caucuses don’t run on Gay Standard Time, so he better get there before they close the doors at 12 noon. He gave me a knowing look and promised to show up on time. We thanked him and moved on to our next address. It was interactions like this one that made our canvassing experience a lot of fun.

    Saturday was the day of the caucuses. We showed up at our assigned elementary school in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas, at 10:30 am, and there were already long lines in the school gym. Overall there were widespread reports of total chaos at several, if not most, caucus sites. There were usually not enough computers to check people in, widespread confusion about pre-registering for the caucus vs. registering to vote, people changing their party affiliation on the spot, and just a general lack of training for the field staff on how to check folks in and run the caucus.

    Each “site” (e.g. school, church, library) has four to ten precincts caucusing there. Our site had six precincts, each ranging in turnout from 15–80 people. The Nevada Democratic Party was to provide a precinct captain for each room to run that precinct’s caucus. In many instances, the assigned captain didn’t know they would play that role until that day, and had received no training. In some cases, no one showed up. In those situations, someone needed to step in and run the caucus. It was not uncommon for a campaign volunteer, and many from outside Nevada, to step in and serve as precinct captains to fill the void. Several of our California Hillary volunteers ended up in these roles, as did some Sanders volunteers. Although the situation seemed vulnerable to abuse, I witnessed no voting fraud and instead saw Bernie and Hillary supporters working together to create order out of the shared chaos.

    In many instances, people stood outside in the sun for lengthy periods of time. At our site, the two representatives from the school were unable to get facilities to turn on the air conditioning, and the temperatures soared inside. There were babies, elderly, and disabled people sweating as they awaited the start of the caucusing. My military training kicked in, and I asked the site leader if I could offer water to the caucus goers. I couldn’t stand seeing everyone suffer, and I didn’t want anyone to leave due to discomfort—remember, to have your vote count, you have to stay until the end.

    He was grateful for the offer, so I drove quickly to the local Kmart and purchased eight cases of water. I am sensitive to the environmental impact of plastic and would never have purchased bottled water if it weren’t such an urgent situation. I returned right at noon, when they locked the doors, and got the water inside just in time. We handed every last bottle of water out to some very thankful people.

    In my precinct that I observed, the captain was competent, but casual. Each campaign had a representative read a statement from the candidate asking for their vote. Then the 81 people divided into two sides of the room—one side for Bernie and one side for Hillary. There were no undecided people in my precinct, so there were no further arguments/statements to persuade anyone. The captain counted each side—47 for Bernie, 34 for Hillary. Then they prorated their 13 delegates accordingly. With rounding, Bernie received 8, Hillary 5. They filled out paperwork, selected volunteers to serve as delegates and the caucus concluded. They all shuffled back out into the bright desert sun, glad to wait four more years for the next presidential election cycle.

    Reflecting on this Nevada caucus experience, I’m not sure I had much impact on the final caucus results. Hillary’s margin of victory was much larger than the 55 households our threesome canvassed, or the 300 caucus-goers at our elementary school that Saturday. But I am confident that, collectively, the entire contingent from the Bay Area made a huge difference.

    I proudly read the many reports from the other caucus sites. Time after time, we jumped in, helped the overburdened party volunteers organize the voter check in and processing procedures, engaged and entertained the caucus goers while they waited in difficult conditions, and made for a far better process and experience for everyone we touched. Who knows? Maybe they will be more likely to vote in November, or attend the next democratic presidential caucus in 2020? We made their day a little more comfortable and a little less frustrating, and that can’t help but contribute to our democracy.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She currently serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, as a San Francisco Library Commissioner, and as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club.