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Caucuses: How Do They Work?

The Iowa Democratic caucus in the city of Earlham, Madison County, Iowa.
Danielle Kurztleben/NPR

The Iowa Democratic caucus in the city of Earlham, Madison County, Iowa.

People across the country watched Ted Cruz win the Republican caucus in Iowa a few weeks ago, while Hillary Clinton won for the Democrats by a very slim margin in what is the true kickoff of the 2016 presidential election.



Nevada is up next to caucus with the Democrat Party’s caucus Feb. 20 and the Republican Party caucus a few days later.   

Nevada has gone back and forth between primaries and caucuses. The state had a caucus system from 1952 to 1972, then switched to a primary system to elect Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, then switched back to a caucus system in 1981.

And that’s where we are now.

But why? What IS a caucus, and why do we have them in Nevada?

And exactly how does it work?

Much of what people saw in Iowa is how it works here. Democrats meet on Saturday, Feb. 20 at different caucus locations. Voters may be registered as Democrat, or may register onsite before the caucus begins. According to Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters for Southern Nevada, the caucuses open at 11 a.m. and all registrants must be in the room by noon.

At that point, voters will be asked to group themselves by who they support, then the trading begins.

Each candidate must have more than 15 percent of the people in the room to stay viable. If he or she does, then more votes are taken until there's a clear winner. People who are going should plan on being there for a few hours.

The Republican caucuses are a bit different.

First, you must be pre-registered. There is no onsite registration on Tuesday, Feb. 23, when the caucuses take place. They will start at 5 p.m. and end at 9 p.m., but you don't have to be there the entire time.

Republicans vote by paper ballot. You walk in, fill out the name of the person you're voting for, drop it in a box and then you can leave. It runs much more like a primary.

Be aware that Nevada DOES have a primary, which is in June. But presidential candidates won't be on that primary ballot.

The caucuses are only for presidential candidates. In June, you get to vote for candidates running for the House and the Senate, as well as local state offices.

Cosgrove said there is a chance that Nevada will change from the caucus process to a primary, but the big challenge could be money. 

"Right now, the parties pay for the caucuses," she said, "If we go to a state-run primary, the way we do the primaries in June, the taxpayers are going to pick up the tab."

Cosgrove says money may not matter if so many people feel like they're being shut out of the process that they want it changed. 

Sondra Cosgrove, president, Southern Nevada chapter of the League of Women voters

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)