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Live Blog: Early voting begins in Democratic caucus

The Nevada Independent Staff
The Nevada Independent Staff
Election 2020
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6:42 p.m. At rural voting sites, a more relaxed vibe 

While early voting sites in urban Nevada featured hours-long waits to cast a ballot, there was almost no delay at the two early voting sites in Storey County, the Silver State's third least-populous county.

Voters walked through the door, waited a few minutes, and then ranked their candidates in a process site volunteers estimated took an average of five to ten minutes.

"The wait time hasn't been irritating or anything like that … It's been a fairly steady flow except for big times of nobody here," Neil Whitehurst, a volunteer at the Storey County voting site in Lockwood.

While filling out both the paper ballot and Google Form took a little bit of extra time, he said, "everybody knows about Iowa, so no one objects to that little extra paperwork."

Whitehurst added that he is a resident of South Reno and had no idea what to expect for attendance when he arrived at the site this morning but was surprised by the approximately 23 people who had voted by the time he spoke with The Nevada Independent around 1 p.m. 

He also said that five people came and switched their party registration from Republican to Democrat, stating that they were "unhappy with the incumbent president" and wanted to have the ability to vote for a Democrat.

Many of the voters said they wanted to elect someone who could win the presidential election in 2020.

Dennis Faulkner, a retired union electrician, voted at Storey County's early voting site in Virginia City. Faulkner said he cast a ballot with the preference order of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Tom Steyer.

"I just believe those three have the best possibility of beating Trump," he said. 

Sherry Slack came with her mother, Shirley Slack, to the voting site in Virginia City.

"We wanted to make sure we got our votes in early so that if they're looking at anything, they know who's on top. We just want to make sure, cause we watch CNN a lot and we're sick of listening to Trump," Sherry Slack said.

Sherry Morreira, a 69-year-old retired school bus driver voted in Lockwood, compared the current state of politics to a soap opera.

"MSNBC is like a reality show. I don't know what I'm going to do if they get rid of Trump, it won't be as exciting, but we want him out of there big time," she said.

Voters who stopped by the two sites also said they preferred early voting to attending the caucuses.

"I don't really care to get to the caucus. You might meet somebody there that you don't really care for. Could be your next-door neighbor, could be an ex-girlfriend could be an ex-boyfriend, who knows," said Faulkner. "And so this is just a little more private, more convenient."

— Tabitha Mueller

Early voting inside the Lockwood Community/Senior Center in Storey County, Nev. on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, the first day of early voting. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

5:58 p.m. Culinary Union members weigh in

At Culinary Union headquarters, voters who were leaving had largely positive feedback about their early voting experience.

“There weren’t many people. It was very fast,” Karina Rios, a 39-year-old Culinary member who works as a busser at the Aria, said in Spanish.

She used her multiple selections to vote twice for Joe Biden and once for Tom Steyer, saying she liked how Biden is doing things and "what we want is to get rid of President Donald Trump."

For 55-year-old Marco Antonio Torres Rosales, a guest room attendant at the Wynn and Encore, the vote was personal. He has been trying to bring his wife from Mexico to the U.S. for a year, and still hasn’t heard a response from immigration officials when one was due three months ago.

He picked Joe Biden as the only candidate on his ballot. One of Torres Rosales’ biggest motivations was to oppose ”the injustices that Trump is committing,” he said. 

“Our president — he feels like he’s king, and the established rules we have in this country — he puts them aside,” Torres Rosales said in Spanish. “Overall he’s against Latinos, especially immigrants, and that’s why I came to vote.”

Maria de Jesus Contreras, 71, didn’t want to say who she voted for because of the divisiveness of politics among her colleagues.

“We almost got into a fight because I said I’m a Democrat,” she said in Spanish.

But she did say she’s optimistic that the “very ugly” situation in the U.S. today will turn around.

“I have a lot of faith and hope, first in God and later in [the candidates], that change is going to come ... better wellbeing for our people, our health,” she said.

She said she hadn’t heard the argument from the Culinary that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would take away Culinary health care in the process of implementing a Medicare for all plan.

“If they want to do that, I think God would prevent them from taking office,” she said.

Sixty-year-old Francisca Gonzalez said she registered to vote for the first time on Saturday. She didn’t want to share who she voted for. 

But she said flyers from the Culinary Union with stark warnings about Medicare for All did not influence her. She doesn’t believe them.

“In reality, the Culinary Union is a big giant. The union is in many states. We’re a great mass of people, of businesses. I’m sure of myself,” she said. “If they get elected, it’s not going to affect the Culinary Union. I don’t worry about this.”

She left the early voting site saying she was confident that her vote matters.

“We’re going to count too,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “Not as ‘minorities.’ It’s very important that we get that out of our heads, that we’re ‘minorities.’ We’re not ‘minorities.’ We bring a lot to this country.”

— Luz Gray

Culinary Union headquarters vote sign
Early voting site at the Culinary Union headquarters on Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Luz Gray.

5:24 p.m. Dinner and democracy at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant

At Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant in Las Vegas, voters came in with ballots and left with takeout bags. 

When owner Abrha Tesfaoi volunteered his restaurant as an early voting site, he was told to expect about 20 voters. However, from the time it opened at 10 a.m., the restaurant had a steady flow of voters coming through its doors to cast their ballot and a line outside of 30-50 people. 

“We didn’t expect it like this,” said Tesfaoi. He said he worried that customers wouldn’t know his restaurant was still open for business, but also said he’s hopeful that having voters inside will create new customers. 

Voters said that their wait outside the restaurant was a little over an hour, and once they get into the voting room the process took about 25 minutes. After that wait, some voters moved into the part of the restaurant that’s still open. One couple took a look at the menu and planned their takeout orders while they waited.

Shannon Miller was one of several voters at the restaurant who said it was not the first early voting site they visited that day. Miller had come from Sierra Vista High School where she said the wait was more than three hours. 

“It was organized, it just was a long wait,” she said. She chose early voting because she thought it would save time over the caucuses, and said she hoped Nevada would scrap the caucus in favor of a primary, “We’re just too big of a state, you know. We’re not Iowa. We’re just too big of a state to do it.”

A voter who declined to give his name put it a little more bluntly: “Caucuses are pointless,” he said. “They’re dumb. They might have made sense when the majority of people in ... the United States were farmers. Maybe. But even then it probably didn’t.”

Even with her complaints about the caucus process, Miller made a point to thank Tesfaoi for allowing voters to use his restaurant.

“It’s really amazing,” she said. 

— Kristyn Leonard

Line outside restaurant
Caucus-goers line up outside of Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant in Las Vegas on the first day of early voting for the state's 2020 Democratic presidential caucus on February 15, 2020. (Kristyn Leonard/The Nevada Independent)

4:17 p.m. - Frustration at Doolittle Community Center

Just 30 minutes after an early voting site at the Doolittle Community Center opened on Saturday, there was already a line of more than 20 people waiting to get into a single room. Those waiting had to step out of the way for each voter who needed to exit.

“They didn’t let us know whether we need to have a separate entrance and exit,” said Andrew Sierra, the site leader with the Nevada Democratic Party, who had few opportunities to look up from the iPad that he was using to check early voters in using Google Forms.  

Ada Glover, 76, said she already knew about a newly announced rule that she needed to choose at least three candidates on her preference card because she’s an “educated woman” and reads the news every day. She said that volunteers still needed to do a better job explaining that to people, especially those who might expect things to be the same as they were in prior caucuses. 

“They need to explain to older people that they have to choose three,” Glover said, referring to the requirement. 

She added that there needed to be a spot for handicapped people, who couldn’t stand in line very long, to vote. There were no chairs in the hallway where early voters were waiting. 

One woman entering the building asked whether Doolittle was an early voting site. She had been to the site at Legacy High School before she decided to try her luck at the community center. 

“Over there it would take at least two hours, so I’m fine with 40 minutes,” she said, walking over to the growing line for early voting.  

Leaha Crawford, 49, said there were not enough volunteers and that the Democratic Party needs to “do better” with the early voting and caucusing. 

A woman who asked to remain anonymous exited the polls before casting her ballot. She was determined to get an answer that she could not get from any of the four volunteers in the room.

“Why is Michael Bennett and Andrew Yang on there, but Michael Bloomberg is not?” she asked, to the point that Bennett and Yang recently dropped out of the presidential race. 

She had written in “Michael Bloomberg” next to the “uncommitted” square on her ballot. 

Bloomberg was not on the ballot because he failed to file for the Nevada caucus. 

— Shannon Miller

4:00 p.m. - Long lines plague Henderson’s Coronado High School

Wait times stretched past 3 hours at times at Coronado High School in Henderson, with some voters comparing the snaking line to cast an early vote for president to “waiting for the Matterhorn” at Disneyland. 

Much of that waiting stemmed from a backed-up registration and check-in process, made slower by the use of Democratic Party-provided iPads and a pre-planned process utilizing Google Forms and too few volunteers to process the large numbers of people. 

Lines became so long early in the day that volunteers abandoned the iPads for voter check in via Google Forms, instead using them only for the process of checking someone’s voter registration, according to site lead Jamie Shay. From there, voters continued to use the paper voting cards as normal. 

Shay said the revised paper process remained as secure as the original plan, though with more speed, especially as more volunteer help arrived from the state party by the afternoon.

“We had far more people show up than we expected, and not a lot of volunteers,” Shay said. “But everybody has been wonderful, the Democrats love waiting in the line because they want to vote. 

That included voters Dennis Dompke and Dan Schaberge, who told The Independent that they were happy to stand in line, even if the process was “like Disneyland.”

Still, the process left a sour taste in some voters mouths, many of whom left the building calling the process “a mess” and “disorganized.” That includes Peter Vaughn, who said he spent more than three hours in line waiting to vote with his family.

By 3:00 p.m., things had started to speed up, and the line to vote no longer stretched outside the school, and by 4:00, the line had nearly shortened by half. But still, voters frequently stepped in line, only to turn around upon seeing the procession of voters-in-waiting stretching down and around one of the school’s hallways. 

—Jacob Solis

1:40 p.m. — Medical emergency, pizza donations and Gov. Steve Sisolak at The Center voting site

A medical emergency during early voting at The Center, a community center for the LGBT cohort in Las Vegas, led to a temporary shutdown of the voting room on Saturday afternoon. 

Larry Herdzina, a voter exiting the site at 12:19 p.m. said that a “medical emergency” added to his wait time at the site, which he said had been a little more than an hour total. 

A few minutes later, volunteers ran to speak to the Las Vegas Metro police officers stationed at the early voting site, asking them if they had any idea when the paramedics would be arriving. The police said they did not know that paramedics had even been called. 

After several minutes of waiting, a volunteer then had to run into the street to flag down an ambulance which she said had been unable to locate the building. The paramedics cleared the area as another volunteer exited the building, announcing that they were performing CPR on the man inside. 

Voters began exiting the site as the voting room had been temporarily shut down. John Wanderer, a voter who had been in line when the emergency was announced, said the room had been shut down at approximately 12:25 p.m. and that a volunteer had come out to inform those waiting in line of the situation.

The room opened again at 12:42 p.m. and voters were allowed inside the room to cast their ballots.

A volunteer with the Human Rights Campaign brings pizza to an early voting site at The Center in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Kristyn Leonard.

Volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, ordered pizza for voters and volunteers at the site to try and improve the mood after the stressful morning.

Earlier in the morning, Gov. Steve Sisolak and first lady Kathy Sisolak had cast their own ballots at The Center earlier in the morning, drawing a round of applause from people in the voting room.

Asked who he voted for, Sisolak declined to say.

Volunteers had been making accommodations throughout the morning for voters who needed special assistance, including holding spots in line so they were able to stay seated during their wait before entering the voting room. Herdzina said that even after he entered the voting room, he still had to wait about 20 minutes to complete the process.

-- Kristyn Leonard

Steve Sisolak greets a man at the early voting site at The Center in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Kristyn Leonard.

12:03 p.m. — Reid casts early caucus vote for no one

Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid caucused uncommitted, a total of three times, at the East Las Vegas Library late Saturday morning. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid casts his ballot in the early vote for the Nevada Caucus at the East Las Vegas Library on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

“I have so many friends, and have such admiration for the work they're doing,” Reid said, noting that he was in the Senate with former Vice President Joe Biden for 24 years, has a “longstanding relationship” with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and served with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar as well.

“All these Democratic presidential wannabes are all capable,” he added.

Reid also reiterated his prediction that Nevada would be the beneficiary of Iowa’s caucus debacle.

“I think the future is, as many pundits have said, it will become the first state to have the primary,” Reid said. “As Iowa and New Hampshire aren't very representative of what happens in the country.”

Asked about Biden’s poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire, Reid was unwilling to rule the former vice president out in Nevada yet.

“He’s going to do well in Nevada. He’s going to do extremely well in South Carolina. People should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race yet.”

Reid also said that he spoke with Klobuchar and Buttigieg on Friday.

— Megan Messerly

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid arrives to cast his ballot in the early vote for the Nevada Caucus at the East Las Vegas Library on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

11:45 a.m. — As participants adjust to early voting, questions arise along with gratitude 

A half hour before early voting kicked off at the Nevada State Education Association headquarters in Las Vegas, a small line had already formed. 

Early voting began at 10 a.m. and, an hour later, about 70 people stood in a snaking line. 

“I think we expected the first day to be very busy, and I’m not sure about tomorrow,” said Alexander Marks, the site leader at the NSEA early voting site.

Marks said some people initially were confused about whether they could vote for the same candidate three times on their ballots. They can, but the confusion hints at the type of questions likely arising at early vote sites across the state as people adjust to the new process. This is the first year Nevada Democrats have been able to participate early in a presidential caucus. 

Still, Marks didn’t report any glitches and said the process seemed to be running smoothly despite the line.

“It’s a good problem to have when people are trying to vote, and there’s too many of them,” he said.

Stickers and candy bowls awaited the early-vote participants as they finished. 

Stan Price, 61, was one of the first people to finish voting early at the NSEA site. He ranked Tom Steyer as his first choice, followed by Amy Kloubchar and Joe Biden. Overall, Price said he was looking for a moderate candidate and would have voted for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had he been on the ballot.

“We don’t need the Hatfields and McCoys,” Price, a Las Vegas resident, said. “We need the Smiths and the Millers — the common folks who get along.”

Al Ackerman, 72, and his wife, Sandie, 74, emerged from the voting site a short time later. They cast ballots with the same preference order of candidates — Biden, Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. They said Biden’s poor performance in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary didn’t cause them too much concern.

“I think if he can do well here and South Carolina, I think he’s come back in the race and if he doesn’t, he’ll be out of the race,” Al Ackerman said. ”But I like all the candidates. I really like them all.”

And what they also liked? The relative ease of casting an early vote, which they said took about 30 minutes.

“It was better than the caucus,” he said. “We did the caucus last time. That was all day.”

— Jackie Valley

11:40 a.m. — In downtown Reno, line stretches into the library book stacks; Steyer campaign brings out taco truck 

One hour into early voting at the Downtown Reno Library, a line stretched so far it began to weave around the book stacks on the first floor of the library. 

“It made me weepy,” said Hilair Chism, who was participating in the caucus for the first time. 

Although she left because of a long line of at least more than 100 voters, Chism said she was heartened by the turnout. Other caucusgoers at the central Reno location left to go to other sites on Saturday. Michelle Weiner said with only a few voting stations, the line was sluggish.

“We were happy that it was a good turnout,” Weiner said. “But we just found out it was only three stations, and we were like ‘oh, we’re going to be here for five more hours.”

“We’re going to just look for another location,” she added, after leaving the library. 

Amid the long lines, the Steyer campaign brought out a coffee truck. 

As caucusgoers left after voting — or abandoning the long line — campaign volunteers passed out tickets for free tacos and refreshments from a La Favorita Catering truck parked next to the library. On the truck, a sign read “climate change cannot wait.”

— Daniel Rothberg

Voters wait in line at the early voting site at the Reno Library on Feb. 15, 2020. Photo by Daniel Rothberg.

10:57 a.m. — Despite a delay, voting underway at East Las Vegas Library

Voters at the East Las Vegas Library have, so far, had mixed opinions on the early voting process, which got underway about 20 minutes because the library was closed until 10 a.m. and volunteers were unable to get early access to set up.

“Oh God, how do we turn on the lights?” one of the volunteers, Pat Stevens, said, as they stepped into a pitch black room.

One caucusgoer, who was second in line to vote at the library Saturday morning but asked not be identified by name, grumbled that the starting of early voting “ran really late.” She also said she didn’t have a lot of confidence in the volunteers running the process.

“I’m not entirely sure that the staff is very certain of what they’re doing to begin with,” she said, noting that the volunteer that checked her in had trouble using the iPad.

One of the volunteers was using the iPad to check voters in on the Google Form-powered check in sheet, while the other was having technical difficulties and decided to switch to paper and pen for the check in process.

But Isais Machado, a 25-year-old professional security guard, described the process as “pretty straightforward” and “simple.” He added that the wait “wasn’t too bad.” Machado’s first choice for the caucus was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who he said he liked for “his consistency of 30-plus years on the issues” — followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California billionaire Tom Steyer, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Asked whether he had any complaints about the early voting process, James Eads, 80, said “none whatsoever.” He was, however, happy to be voting using pen and paper and not on an iPad.

“I’m 80 years old,” he said. “I’m not very computer literate.”

He said he prefers early voting over the caucus process, though he wouldn’t describe it necessarily as “easier.” The caucus process itself is pretty straightforward, he said.

He chose Steyer as his first choice, Warren as his second and uncommitted as his third.

“(Steyer’s) got a lot of fire in his gut. That’s what it’s going to take to beat this guy,” Eads said. “Him and Elizabeth, they’re got fire.”

Clark County Democratic Party Chairwoman Donna West was grinning broadly, in awe of the turnout. There were about four dozen people in line just before 11 a.m.

“Democrats love to vote early,” she said.

— Megan Messerly

10:10 a.m. — Washoe early voters brave long lines, have little love for caucus format 

Amid the confusion and delayed results from Iowa’s presidential caucus several weeks ago, several voters interviewed outside the Washoe Democratic Party’s office on Saturday said they would prefer a normal primary election over the caucus process.

But many voters said they liked the early vote system of having a “ranked choice” ballot, where voters list their top three to five choices, with their vote “switching” to another candidate if their top choice can’t meet the 15 percent viability threshold.

“It’s just easy to go in and vote, and you’re done,” said Cheryl Hansen, who said her top three choices were Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Sanders. “You have to take, what sounds like, is going to be my whole day.”

Still, there were lines and waits in the first hours of early voting. A taco truck pulled up in the parking lot at the office, and one voter inquired how she could get coffee and donuts delivered to volunteers she imagined were “overwhelmed” by the crowd.

Retired Reno resident Amy, 81, said she has voted for as long as she’s been able and didn’t want to give that up — even though she uses a cane to get around. She was moving a chair through the foyer of the Washoe County Democratic headquarters early vote site.

Although she said the wait was tough on her physically, “people have been very good about making sure that I had a chair and could move well so that’s the good thing,” she said.

For voters who were already registered Democrats, the check-in process at the front of the line lasted about four or five minutes and entailed a series of steps using iPads and paper slips. Amy — who declined to give her last name — said it was better than the 2016 caucus, when she was moved around on a rolling desk chair.

“I will not go to a caucus again because it was so horribly disorganized and it was to the point where they had to wheel me out to my car because it lasted over four hours,” she said.

Other early voters, including Patrick McQuillan and Kiely Gilfillan, said they wanted to avoid the “utter chaos” and long lines that occurred when they caucused in previous election cycles.

“We’ve been to actual caucuses before, and this is much less hell,” McQuillan said. “Seriously, the caucus process is just brutal, we don’t like it, we’d prefer not to deal with it, but unfortunately in Nevada we don’t have a choice.”

Others said they appreciated the opportunity to cast an early ballot because of work obligations or other obstacles to participating in the actual caucus on Feb. 22. Kelly Kryszak, a flight attendant, said she was early voting because her job would take her to Costa Rica on the day of the actual caucus.

Kryszak said she supported Sanders in 2016 and planned to support him again in 2020, with her other ranked candidates including Warren, Steyer and Buttigieg. She said she was still concerned amid the issues that arose with the Iowa Democratic Party’s failed use of an app to calculate caucus vote totals and still had concerns with how the Nevada process would ultimately play out.

“I’m not confident at all,” she said. “I’m only a registered Democrat to vote for Bernie.”

— Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels

Volunteer Carol Bratcher checks in voters at the Washoe County Democratic headquarters in Reno, Nev. on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, the first day of early voting. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

8:46 a.m.

RENO — Doug Smithson, site lead at the first early voting site to open in Nevada, choked up as he reported that the first voters had successfully cast their ballots in the presidential race.

“So far so good,” Smithson said, his voice breaking. “After Iowa, there was a lot of nervousness and we were worried are we going to be able to do it, and it’s happening.”

Since the reporting delays of the Iowa caucuses, the Nevada State Democratic Party overhauled its plan to use apps to collect votes and combine early voting and Caucus Day results. 

“I think that we probably would have been okay with the app they were doing,” said Smithson, who is also coordinator of volunteers for Washoe County Democrats. “We've done a ton of training and we put it through paces where we've gone, we've done walkthroughs and it worked fine, but then Iowa happened, we couldn't use it. It's going to make it a harder process in counting the early votes, but we'll get it done.”

Michael and Haley Collins were the first two people in Nevada to cast their early vote ballots at the Washoe County Dems Office in Reno, NV. on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (Riley Snyder/The Nevada Independent)

The first person aside from volunteers to cast a vote was Michael Collins, a 35-year-old building analyst from Reno wearing stickers in support of Pete Buttigieg. He said the voting process took about four minutes, and said he saw only minor hitches, such as the iPads being overly sensitive when they scrolled through the pages of voter rolls.

Volunteers made it clear that he needed to fill in at least three choices for the ballot to count, Collins said. He and his wife submitted their choices on a scannable paper ballot using a pen.

“Frankly, there’s so much checking and cross-checking and because it’s on paper, I’m very confident that things will be counted properly,” he said. “If they don’t have issues with lines and volume, I think the early vote is going to go really smoothly.”

At least one voter, 38-year-old Reno doctor Anne Butler, left the line after spending 30 minutes there without voting. She said she planned to come back later to vote but needed to take advantage of skiing lessons she had paid for. 

“I was hoping it would be quick, in and out. It wasn’t. That’s fine,” she said.

— Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder

Doug Smithson, early voting site lead at the Washoe County Democratic headquarters in Reno, Nev. on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, speaks with The Nevada Independent of the first day of early voting. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

8 a.m.

RENO — The Nevada Democratic caucus has officially kicked off with the first early vote site in the state opening in Reno at 8 a.m.

Voting for the Democratic nominee started at the Washoe Democratic Party’s headquarters, with 62 additional early voting sites scheduled to open their doors during the four-day early vote period.

Nevada is the first state to allow early voting in a caucus. The official caucus day is Feb. 22.

A list of early vote sites can be found here.

Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder

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