Like many structures in Las Vegas, the angular, ultramodern Rancho High School on the city’s working-class northeast side looks like it was designed, built and airdropped onto the desert sometime last week. On Saturday, January 19, at 11 am, the building played host to five Democratic precinct caucuses, the first of their kind in the state’s history.
In 2006 the Democrats, looking to capitalize on electoral opportunities out West and to diversify the early electorate, granted Nevada a coveted early spot on the calendar. But since the party originally intended that Nevada precede New Hampshire, the state couldn’t stage a primary without threatening the tender ego of Granite Staters. So the DNC decided to import the complicated Iowa caucus model instead. (The state has had caucuses in the past, countywide and late in the cycle, but they were very sparsely attended.) Jayson Sime, who helped run the Iowa caucuses in 2004, moved to Las Vegas a year ago to start building the infrastructure from scratch to make it all work. “It’s like planning 1,763 weddings,” he told me, “and they all have to go off at the same time.”
Three precincts were supposed to be caucusing in the cafeteria, but instead there was chaos. Confused crowds surrounded several large tables strewn with registration sheets and preference cards. A black woman named Violet Dorn sat at the middle table, festooned with Hillary stickers and lording over the official registration papers. Across the table, a black man in a white-collared shirt and suit with an Obama button stood berating her. “Stop telling people this table is only for Hillary!” he shouted. “You cannot do that!” A small wrestling match commenced over the paperwork. Then a white man approached. “What kind of politics is this?” he yelled. “Is this the politics of change?” His shirt featured a picture of Obama and the words He’s Black and I’m Proud.
Meanwhile, the caucus attendees circled and paced, looking for some sign of order and finding none. Hobbling behind a walker, one woman explained that she’d come with fellow residents of a nearby senior citizen center looking to vote, but their names hadn’t been on the rolls. (That shouldn’t have stopped her, since the caucuses offered same-day registration.) Eventually she was allowed to caucus. Some people left; others just watched and steamed, frustrated and powerless. The confusion stretched on, twenty minutes, half an hour…
“This is so unorganized,” one man exclaimed. “This is so unorganized!”
“Well, it doesn’t help when you yell!” answered a woman in a Clinton shirt.
“You call this organized? It’s a mess!”
The atmosphere grew more panicked as everyone realized no one was in charge. Because of my press credentials, people mistook me for a party official, asking where they were supposed to go, what to do if their name wasn’t on the rolls and which precinct they belonged in. I took to looking up precinct locations on my phone. The room seemed to teeter on the precipice of a general melee. Volunteers scurried off to call for backup. I phoned the state Democratic Party and told them they had to send someone to Rancho High School immediately.