LAS VEGAS — Claims of confusion, “dirty tricks” and disarray cast a shadow over Tuesday night’s Nevada caucus, with state Republicans under intense scrutiny that they not mess up the process — yet again.
Incidents of disorder and disorganization cropped up throughout the night. Campaign watchdogs placed at caucus locations claimed that volunteers were dressed in full gear supporting Donald Trump and that they were bullying voters. Other volunteers complained that a number of precinct captains failed to show up to the job, leading to little oversight over who was voting, or even for how many times.
It was a rocky start for a party already mired in a reputation for fumbling elections. Poor turnout and catastrophic issues counting ballots in the past threatened to jeopardize the state’s status as the “First in the West” to weigh in on the presidential race.
In a sense, the party exceeded expectations by seeing record-high turnout and being able to turn around results within a few hours after polls closed. But the bar wasn’t set very high. Only 7 percent of voters turned out to caucus in 2012, and yet it still took officials nearly three days to tally results. State officials wrote the whole event off as an “embarrassment” for the Republican Party.
In some ways, the process was set up to fail.
State Republicans did not have a uniform schedule for the evening — in some areas, polls opened at 5 p.m. PST, in others much later. The state’s largest county, which spans Las Vegas, decided to close polls 30 minutes earlier than the rest of Nevada, which gave them a jump on counting ballots, but also led to people showing up late, only to be turned away.
Ballots included the names of 11 candidates even though only five Republicans remain in the race. The paper slips had been printed well in advance, meaning that candidates who have dropped out of the race still had a box next to their name on the ballot.
Candidates pre-emptively politicized problems with the caucus process. The Trump campaign wrote a letter of concern to the Nevada GOP, responding to reports that Sen. Ted Cruz’s team instructed volunteers to film any nefarious activity during Tuesday’s caucus. The state party was forced to respond to the spat by making clear that the general public could not record the event.
Sen. Marco Rubio entered the fray during an interview with Fox News Tuesday night, when he raised concerns of seeing more “dirty tricks” from the Cruz campaign and referenced allegations of sabotage seen during the Iowa caucuses.
“I just want to make sure no one goes to vote tonight and is told that somehow I’ve dropped out of this race or some of these other silly things that have happened here over the last few weeks,” Rubio said on Fox News.
In the end, Nevada saw the greatest turnout in its young caucus history, pushing 75,000 people to the polls — more than double the number of Republicans who showed up in 2012.
The caucus-goers at Palo Verde High School in east Las Vegas were so numerous that volunteers ran out of ballots. The whole process skid to a stop as officials scrambled to replenish supplies.
James Smalls, the caucus site manager there, said volunteers were ill-prepared for the flood of voters to come immediately as the doors opened. And while he was aware of complaints that precinct captains were wearing partisan ragula, Smalls said his hands were tied.
“People can wear any sort of paraphernalia. If someone has a Trump t-shirt on, I can’t prevent that,” Smalls told MSNBC.
The atmosphere turned heated toward the end of the night as final stragglers rushed to show up to caucus, but were told that polls in their county closed at 8:30 p.m., and not 9 p.m., as was widely promoted throughout the state. Voters were offered provisional ballots to cast but were unable to formally caucus.
“File a complaint. Let them vote!” one Cruz supporter yelled at the crowd. “I don’t care if they vote for Trump. It’s their right!”
Eric Lloyd arrived eight minutes after the doors closed, expecting the caucus location to remain open for the same amount of time as everywhere else in the state. Visibly angered by the outcome, he paced around the caucus space, his phone open to the GOP’s website where it stated plainly that all caucus locations were open until 9 p.m.
“It seems rigged,” Lloyd told MSNBC. “It taints the whole system.”