In Las Vegas, caucus talk has been unavoidable for the last few weeks. I’d chalk it up to my demographic, but even my 21-year-old stepson has brought it up a few times over dinner (that, I chalk up to Bernthusiasm). Independent-minded friends complained about their obligation to register as Democrat or Republican to make their voices heard. Family members reminded me on Facebook how important it is to participate in the political process. In the Desert Companion newsroom, we wondered what, if any, our rights and responsibilities were.
It’s a trickier question to answer than you might think. On February 16, Jon Ralston tweeted an excerpt from Las Vegas Review Journal Editor J. Keith Moyer’s memo to staffers saying that “journalists have the same rights as any American,” but that to avoid a “perception of a lack of objectivity” on the part of the paper, staff reporters “may not be caucus-goers or declare a party preference at a caucus.” Replying to that tweet, my Nevada Public Radio colleague, Casey Morell, noted that the NPR ethics code contained a similar directive, although it specified “journalists who are responsible for coverage of politics or government” and deferred to the ultimate judgment of reporters’ supervisors. The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee also advises that reporters “definitely should not” take a position on an issue or in a candidate race in a public or visible way.
I don’t cover politics, per se, but most of the subjects I’m interested in — education, the environment, health — have a political bent. At the same time, the promise of a raucous sociopolitical experiment was calling me. I didn’t want to caucus so much as just go and watch the action.
So I did. An acquaintance who was volunteering for the state Democratic Party had told me that members of the public were allowed to attend as observers, and a check of the Nevada Secretary of State’s web page on the 2016 presidential caucuses confirmed, “These meetings are open to the public, but only registered voters of the respective party may participate in the selection process.” Curious to see if it would work, last Saturday morning I went to the caucusing location for my precinct, K.O. Knudsen Middle School, waited in line with my neighbors for about 45 minutes, and, arriving at the registration area told the volunteer in charge that I only wanted to observe. Fine, she said; I could go in, but I had to stay away from the areas designated for caucusing and couldn’t talk to anyone with a preference card.
As luck would have it, CNN’s Boris Sanchez and reporters from several other news organizations were covering my precinct. Comfortable with the media, I settled in on their side of the gym, among some volunteers who’d also come to observe, and watched the process unfold.
I was glad I did. It was a fascinating affair, both more chaotic and more civilized than I expected. A couple hundred voters from two precincts, 5537 and 5565, were gathered in the same place, seated in bleachers along a wall bearing the banner, “Cougar Country.” The precinct captains didn’t arrive until around 12:30. They took turns reading letters from Nevada Democratic Party leaders — Senator Harry Reid, Congresswoman Dina Titus, party chair Roberta Lange — rallying people to vote for Democrats in the general elections this fall and generally getting everyone revved up. Then the captains split up and started yelling instructions to their separate groups at the same time.
That’s when things got confusing. People were stood up and shuffled around. Impromptu secretaries elected. Hands raised, counted and lowered. Numbers shouted. More shuffling — this group stand over here; that one sit over there. It was noisy. From where I stood, it was hard to tell who was for whom. We observers repeatedly asked each other what had just happened, what the numbers were, etc. We joked about the unbelievably low-tech methods being used. Isn’t there an app for this by now?
And then, within half an hour, it was done. Bernie Sanders had won precinct 5537; Hillary, 5565. Voters wrote on their preference cards, left them on the tables where captains and secretaries were tabulating results and filed out with little ado, undoubtedly anxious to get a bite to eat after three nearly hours at the school.
Since then, I’ve heard stories of fist-fights breaking out between opposing sides, impatient people losing their tempers with volunteers and the undecided being aggressively wooed. I didn’t see anything that dramatic, but I saw enough to understand why journalists shouldn’t be involved. And I wondered how the results might differ if we and anyone else who’s barred from or uncomfortable with the process could have participated — if it aligned with our professional need for impartiality or our personal desire for privacy.
Probably not much, but at least we wouldn’t have to wonder.