Thousands of Nevadans waited for hours this weekend to do something that has never been done before this primary season: early voting in a caucus.
The change by the Nevada Democratic Party this year is aimed at opening up the otherwise restrictive caucus process and boosting turnout in the state. Nevadans are notably familiar with early voting — more than 56% of the state voted early in the 2016 general election.
And it’s clear that opening up the process could be a boon for the Democratic Party here. The state party announced that more than 18,000 Nevadans voted on Saturday, with some waiting more than three hours to do so. That number grew to more than 26,000 total by the end of the weekend.
But early voting is a unique addition to the caucus process, and its success rests on whether the Nevada Democratic Party can successfully link the votes cast early with the precincts where those voters would have expressed their presidential preference this coming Saturday.
Adding pressure to the process: The Iowa caucuses were thrown into chaos because of a faulty app and overwhelmed, leading to questions about how Nevada’s caucuses will go.
Here is what you need to know about early voting in Nevada.
How does it work?
Early voting began on Saturday, February 15, and Nevadans have four days — until Tuesday, February 18 — to cast an early ballot.
The party has set up more than 80 locations across the state, with only a few being open all four days. Those locations include union halls, schools and event spaces.
One example is the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 hall in Las Vegas, where both union members and non-union members waited more than an hour on Sunday to cast their ballot.
“Nevada is an early vote state,” said Bethany Khan, spokeswoman for the Culinary union. “I think that trend will stay true in the caucus … This is the first time the union has been an early vote location and this site has seen hundreds of people come through on day one of early vote.”
When a voter walks into an early voting site, they check in with an election volunteer who has a PDF voter roll pre-loaded onto an iPad. If a voter is not a registered Democrat, they will need to register with the party at that time.
The voter, after being given a pre-generated voter PIN, is asked to enter their information into a check-in form via Google.
The voter, once they begin the actual voting process, is then asked to rank either their candidates one to five in order of preference on a ballot.
That preference list is unique to caucuses and is done so that if the voter’s top choice does not reach viability in their caucus site on caucus day — that means they usually have 15% of the room supporting them — their support can go to their second or third choice. Voters can express support for up to five choices in ranked order. For example, if a voter who voted early puts former Vice President Joe Biden as their top choice but Biden is not viable in their caucus site on Saturday, their second choice will be counted upon realignment.
The voter, once finished, signs their ballot.
How has it gone so far?
The only complaints so far have been the wait times.
Some voters waited well over three hours to vote in at least one precinct on Saturday, and some voters worried that the delays would continue throughout the four-day process.
Voters even began to drive around Las Vegas looking for early voting sites with shorter lines. While the Culinary Union set up an early voting site at their hall to support their union members, conversations with Nevadans who had voted there revealed that many of them were not union members.
Debbie Curtis, a teacher in the state, told CNN Saturday she saw people walk away after waiting for an extended period of time at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas.
“Hopefully they go someplace else to vote,” she said. “It’s just too important.”
Early voting during the general election is so prevalent in Nevada that a number of high-profile Nevada Democrats took advantage of the addition to the caucus over the weekend.
Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid voted early on Saturday — and he used the opportunity to knock the Iowa chaos.
“After the debacle we had in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s a breath of fresh air here in Nevada,” he said. “We’re a state that represents the rest of the country.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tweeted on Monday that he took his 93-year old mother to early vote.
“My 93-year-old mom went to caucus early and express her preference this weekend,” he wrote. “Thank you so much to all of the Democratic staff and volunteers for being so kind and patient. You’re all the best!!”
How are early votes counted?
A voter, once they are done filling out their ballot, returns it and their voter card to a ballot box that is monitored by a party volunteer.
Here is where the unique part of early voting in a caucus comes in: Once all of the voting is finished, the ballot box is transported to a designated processing hub monitored by the state party, where the votes are scanned and stored.
Unlike Iowa, those results will be included in the total count for each voter’s precinct during the caucus. For example: If a voter from a caucus site in Elko, Nevada, votes early, their preference will be counted as part of the total votes in their specific caucus site on Saturday.
According to the Nevada Democratic Party, the number and preference of early votes cast will be given to each precinct chair in paper and as part of a preloaded iPad on Saturday.
Why does it matter?
The Nevada caucuses represent the first time a diverse state has expressed their presidential preference this cycle.
Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, a criticism that has been widely leveled at Democrats looking to challenge the fact that the two states go first in the primary process.
And the winner of the Nevada caucuses will have a credible case to make that they — beyond those who succeeded in Iowa and New Hampshire — are the best candidate to represent the party going forward because Nevada represents the rest of the country.
This could be critical for a candidate like Biden, who turned in disappointing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire and is banking on success in diverse Nevada and the upcoming South Carolina primary to boost his campaign.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the New Hampshire primary and performed well in Iowa, could take a step toward further jumping to the lead of the primary with a win in Nevada.
And for candidates like former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both of whom have struggled with winning over Latino and black voters, a strong performance in Nevada could help quell those concerns.