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Mayhill Fowler

Mayhill Fowler

Posted: January 20, 2008 08:04 PM

Confusion Over Rules Rampant At NV Caucus Sites

At 1:15 PM Saturday, while watching an intensifying argument among the caucusers of Reno precinct #1003--when and how will the Clinton and Obama camps get to make their pitches to the unviable Edwards's supporters--I get a message from The New York Times on my Blackberry that AP, CNN and NBC have called the Nevada Democratic Caucus for Hillary Clinton. Luckily, nobody else in the Reno High School gymnasium, host of several Republican caucuses in the morning and now three Democratic caucuses in the afternoon, seems to be so wired; therefore the buoyant enthusiasm, determination and commitment of the caucusers continue to play out. I say "luckily" because among the press observers, aside from a local TV station and I (seemingly all the national press having been attracted to Las Vegas like moths to a pyrotechnic display on the Strip), is a coterie of newspaper editors from the Middle East. I wouldn't want them to get the impression that their American counterparts interfere with the news we are supposed to be covering.

For the last three hours, these gentlemen (from Bahrain, Egypt, Quatar and Saudi Arabia) and lady (from Morocco) and I have been moving back and forth from the gymnasium to the cafeteria (home to another three caucuses) to the little gym (even more) and back, talking about American and Middle Eastern politics. By 1 PM, we're again with precinct #1003, where an argument has broken out over the rules on realignment. "Caucusing is a new experience for most of these people," I explain to the editors, "but eventually Nevada will get the hang of it." The scene before us is messy and disorganized; but I'm proud that my new acquaintances are seeing a little something of American democracy. Even as I'm indulging this emotion, I get an email from Debbie Mesloh, Obama's Communications Director in California, about an imminent conference call with David Plouffe, on the subject of Obama's win of 13 (overall) delegates to Clinton's 12 in Nevada. It's curious that Obama's campaign manager could have a final count when here in caucus #1003 the caucus leader doesn't know how to award her precinct's twelfth delegate (Obama having 7 and Clinton 4--uh oh, that's only 11). She says she will have to call party headquarters to find out what to do--and that will be after everybody has gone home.

If Election 2008 is heralding change, then chaos and craziness are going to be part; and that's what I've seen today in Nevada. Has there ever been so much spin before the event is finished? So many news outlets and so much misinformation? (Kudos to Candy Crowley on CNN for at least mentioning the delegate count in Nevada, as opposed to the popular vote, and having the grace to add that nobody really knows the final tally of NV delegates because of the Superdelegate factor.) Before dark, I get more emails from the Obama camp, quoting Plouffe: "We currently have reports of over 200 separate incidents of trouble at caucus sites. . . ," all part of "the Clinton campaign's efforts to confuse voters." Not surprisingly, the Clinton camp quickly accuses the Obama folk of the same.

By Sunday's conference call, the Obama team is talking about 300 incident reports. I don't get a chance to put in my two cents--maybe just as well, since my principal reaction is amusement. Bob Bower, general counsel to the Obama Campaign, is wound tight as a tympanum talking about the timetable for the caucus and the caucus rule book. Clearly, this man has not been to a caucus. All it took in Iowa, a state experienced in caucusing, was a change in one factor, the number of people in attendance, for many of the rules and regulations, of necessity, to be tossed aside. Certainly, this is what I saw in Iowa City; this is what I've heard anecdotally from a dozen or so California volunteers to various campaigns who in the pandemonium of the moment found themselves helping to run Iowa caucuses ("against the rules"). Not surprisingly, Nevada, inexperienced in caucusing, had even more problems with its unexpectedly large attendance for both parties.

Why the Nevada Dems, after the Iowa Caucus, didn't call the Iowa Dems for advice is a mystery. The first thing Iowa could've told them--one thing Iowa does well--is that the state party has to inform and educate voters, and tell them over and over again in as many ways as possible, how to caucus and where to caucus. In Nevada, however, caucus locations were a closely-held secret between the registrar of voters and properly-identified voters until finally, on caucus day itself, some newspapers printed some of the caucus sites. But in Reno many citizens didn't understand that they had to caucus with their neighborhood precinct. They thought they could go to any caucus site, and Reno High School was a popular choice for random voters, who had to be turned away. Many voters, assuming that a caucus was like a primary, took the listed hours to be merely the opening times; they figured that the caucus would go on all day. Again, befuddled Republicans showed up too late at Reno High; bemused Democrats arrived just as everyone else was leaving. Some of these would-be caucusers were angry and felt that they had been disenfranchised.

Disenfranchisement is the stated concern of the Obama folk in these flurries of conference calls. Bob Bower says that the Clinton precinct captains used a rule book, printed by the Clinton Campaign, that stated erroneously that registration for caucus was to close at 11:30 AM. Therefore, some would-be caucusers were wrongly turned away when various caucus sites relied on the Clinton rule book instead of the Nevada Democratic Party rules. This was not what happened in Reno, however. First of all, on local web sites Democratic caucus registration was given as 11 to 11:30 AM. At Reno High School, the Obama precinct captains, the Clinton captains and the Nevada Democratic Party representative overseeing the caucuses there all thought that registration was supposed to close at 11:30 AM. Furthermore, everybody knew at 11, when the caucus was supposed to open (and begin registration of unregistered voters), that the Democratic Caucus would be running late, because at 10:30 AM the Republicans, who also had turned out in unexpectedly large numbers, still had the floor.

At 11:30 AM, I'm watching precinct #1006 begin the caucus process. As their captain opens the formalities, reading a letter from Harry Reid, the party representative rushes up and interrupts. "Word's come down from the State Democratic Party," she says. "We're to keep registering until 11:59. So quit reading until noon." None of this had anything to do with the Clinton volunteers. In the eight caucuses I watched at Reno High School, all the volunteers, Clinton and Obama, were exemplary (if at times a bit cross). Nobody was prepared for the turnout; therefore, all the precinct captains had to pitch in and help out in ways that did not necessarily further their candidate's interests. But all of them whom I watched did just that--helping another candidate's supporter find the right site among the eight at the school; helping a lost caucuser with the right precinct location on a city map. Obama precinct captains carried chairs for Clinton's frail elderly. Clinton captains made room for growing Obama contingents on the bleachers.

Three hundred incident reports? From what I saw, there should be a thousand reports, given that there were over 1700 caucuses, if you want to look at Nevada 2008 in that light. But I'm skeptical of any organized maliciousness, extremely skeptical; and I'm surprised that Bob Bower, given that he's an attorney and therefore someone who should be well-acquainted with our human proclivity for exaggeration and embellishment, is not also casting a cool, appraising eye. Were there problems in Nevada--yes, indeed--from the small (nobody thought to bring pencils to mark the preference cards) to the potentially troublesome (not nearly enough preference cards, so scraps of paper had to be used) to the really troublesome (no bullhorns, so the elderly especially couldn't hear what the leaders of the larger caucuses were saying) to the serious, which involved either ignorance or misunderstanding of the more important Nevada Democratic Caucus rules. (And please, Nevada, next time don't let the press call the outcome until the caucuses are over.)

In precinct #1003, for example, the supporters of John Edwards, once the count showed him to be an unviable candidate, never grasped their position, never knew why they were supposed to move to either the Clinton or Obama side of the bleachers. Most of them didn't want to move and did so only because the hour was growing late and some of the elderly in the caucus were already leaving. They didn't realize that, even though their votes would not count for Edwards, they could stay put. The caucus leader had had training but was unable to explain realignment clearly. And this was a caucus where everybody's first language was English. Again not surprisingly there were communication problems in caucuses where this was not the case. The incidents where Hispanic organizers tried to tell Hispanic caucusers what to do likely arose out of a different set of cultural assumptions about person and power than the one to which Anglo America is accustomed, and not from any disenfranchising effort on the part of either the Clinton or Obama campaigns in Nevada. Neither the Clinton nor the Obama team is likely to feel that it's in their interest to step back from accusations of perfidy in Nevada, however. The rancor is growing and carrying over. We'd better brace ourselves in California.