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Nevada's new caucus rules present challenges for 2020 Democrats

Nevada hopes for smoother run after Iowa
Nevada hopes for smoother run after Iowa 05:00

As the Democratic presidential campaign enters the final 100 days before Nevada's caucuses, a handful of reforms adopted after the 2016 presidential race have created new challenges for candidates and the state's Democratic party.

Nevada holds the third contest of the Democratic caucuses, and is a crucial test of candidates' support among Hispanics, Asian Americans and the state's powerful labor unions. This year, Nevada Democrats have raced to vet and secure more than 70 locations to host four new days of early voting. 

To address complaints of ill-prepared precinct chairs in 2016, the party is erecting an hours-long curriculum online for the thousands of volunteers they need to muster. And with precincts now fielding both in-person and early vote tallies, Democrats are finalizing software contracted to tabulate the results with a paper trail.

"There was a training program in 2016. However, as we've noted, so much has changed throughout our process. And what that has meant for us is that we've had to build this up from scratch," Shelby Wiltz, the state party's caucus director, tells CBS News.

Projected expenses to run the contest this cycle have ballooned up from 1.7 to more than 2.2 million dollars. 

"I know the whole country's going to be watching because we are the first caucus state to offer early voting," Clark County Democrats Chair Donna West tells CBS News. 

"This is again Nevada leading on something, and we really want to make this work, and show that we can caucus as a party and still be expansive and inclusive," adds West.

Many of these reforms come at the behest of the Democratic National Committee. After the bitter 2016 primary fight, the party convened a "Unity Reform Commission" to identify ways to reform the nominating race. The national party has urged states to abandon caucuses in favor of a straightforward primary. But Nevada has kept its caucuses, which are famous for their eccentric and byzantine rules, while agreeing to change some aspects of its nominating process. 

Some of these changes to the "first in the West" contest this cycle, like a nascent attempt to develop an option for "virtual caucuses," were eventually scrapped. Others, like a move to "lock" the allocation of delegates based on the initial round of voting, have been hailed by Democrats.

"That's another change that the party has made that we think makes the caucus more democratic, and more representative, and that we thinks helps us," Sarah Michelsen, who helms the Bernie Sanders campaign in Nevada, told CBS News. 

Long after votes were cast in 2016, allies of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton exchanged accusations of misconduct over the process to allocate delegates at county and state party conventions. Next year, Democrats are hopeful this reform will avert intra-party skirmishes.

But while well-intentioned, some changes have also added complexity to an already elaborate system. In interviews with senior local party officials and campaign aides familiar with the details of their candidate's caucus plans, some Democrats also expressed discomfort over further tweaks to Nevada's delegate selection plan since it was adopted by the state party's central committee in the spring.

For example, recently-added language to the plan could change the outcome of the "realignment" process on caucus day.

In order to win delegates at each precinct, candidates must secure enough votes to meet a minimum "viability threshold." Supporters of candidates that fall short of this bar can switch their picks during "realignment" on caucus day.

The state party says they have no plans to put the newly-revised plan up for another vote to their governing body. A spokesperson claimed there had been no "substantive" changes to the original draft, outside of the now-abandoned "virtual caucus" and some minor fixes.

Aides to some top-polling candidates also dismissed the impact of such tweaks, expressing confidence in the state party's efforts to reform the process and in their own prospects come February 22nd.

But given the sheer number of candidates expected to compete for delegates this cycle, such changes could determine the fate of lower-polling contenders. Some may even see their outcomes decided by the Nevada caucuses' rarely-deployed tiebreaker: a shuffled deck of playing cards.

And campaigns across the board are taking no chances as they ramp up their operations for the final 100 days, jockeying to lock down experts versed in the minutiae of the caucus process.

"The opportunity arose for me with Pete for America to be the national caucus director and I was thrilled to jump on board," Travis Brock, former executive director of Nevada's State Democratic Party, tells CBS News. Brock ran the state's first early nominating caucuses in 2008.

"There's a small subset of people in the political world who have the kind of caucus experience that I do both in Iowa and in Nevada," says Brock.

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