When Sarah Lee Hooper’s mail-in ballot for Nevada’s presidential primary arrived last month, the Las Vegas Republican was utterly confused.
The candidate she wanted to vote for, Vivek Ramaswamy, wasn’t included. Neither were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and, most notably, former President Donald Trump. The only name she recognized was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“What the heck? This is weird,” she remembered thinking. “Are they trying to convince people Nikki is the only option?”
A quick internet search turned up the answer: The Nevada Republican Party opted to eschew the state-run presidential primary on Feb. 6, in favor of running its own caucus two days later, which will decide who wins Nevada’s delegates to the national GOP convention. Presidential contenders who participate in the primary are prohibited by the party from also being candidates in the caucus.
While legal, the party’s decision to host a competing nominating contest in the state has confused and angered GOP voters.
Hooper had no idea there would also be a caucus or that Ramaswamy opted to participate in it instead of the primary before dropping out of the race.
“If you don’t want me to be a conspiracy theorist, then be transparent,” Hooper said. “Send me all of the information at once.”
Since Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election, supporters have cultivated an ecosystem of confusion around election processes through unfounded claims of voter fraud, demands for paper ballots and hand counts, and state-by-state efforts to subvert the 2020 results.
Leaders of the caucus effort are among those who tried to keep Trump in power. Three caucus overseers face felony charges for their roles in trying to overturn the 2020 election. Others running the caucus have been on the vanguard of those pushing unfounded election fraud allegations in the state.
These Republicans claim the caucus will serve as a model for how to run a more secure election — a claim disputed by election experts who note the drastic differences between a caucus, which attracts a fraction of the electorate to decide a single race, and elections, where many more voters cast ballots for local, state and federal offices.
The primary election is run by state election officials and adheres to Nevada’s voting laws — which allow for mail-in ballots, early voting and same-day registration. The Nevada Republican Party’s rules for its caucus reflect some GOP leaders’ efforts to limit voting. Participation requires registering as a Republican 30 days in advance, arriving at a set location and time, and presenting identification.
The confusion created about how elections work, including fraud allegations and now around how Nevada will choose who it backs in the Republican primary, has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation to take hold, experts say, causing a greater share of voters to distrust election results and democratic institutions.
“It does make the misinformation environment more dangerous,” said Gowri Ramachandran, deputy director of elections and government for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “These information gaps about voting, how it works, that sort of thing, can get filled in by incorrect information.”
“It’s clear from Jan. 6 that when that kind of misinformation spreads, it has a negative impact on people’s trust in elections and willingness to abide by the results,” she added. “It’s had a negative effect on democracy over the years.”
Confusion Over Competing Contests
When primary ballots absent Trump’s name began hitting mailboxes, Republicans across the state reacted with angry bewilderment.
Some thought he had been kicked off the ballot by a court because of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, as happened in a Colorado case that is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. (A judge in Nevada rejected a similar challenge.) Others latched on to a false rumor that an inept campaign staffer forgot to file paperwork to get Trump on the ballot. Voters also wondered whether they could participate in both contests, or if casting a primary ballot and caucusing would constitute an illegal attempt to vote twice. (Nevada’s attorney general and secretary of state have assured voters they are free to participate in both.)
“I haven’t heard anybody who is happy with this unless they are with the state party and the county parties,” said Assemblywoman Danielle Gallant, R-Las Vegas, who has spent recent weeks explaining the situation to her constituency of mostly older voters.
The Nevada Republican Party’s decision to force candidates to forgo the primary if they wanted to be included in the caucus will likely hand the state’s 26 convention delegates to the former president. (At this point only one other obscure candidate remains in the caucuses.) It also foreclosed on any of Trump’s opponents building momentum from a strong showing in the state’s primary even as the field has shrunk since Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving Haley and a handful of lesser-known contenders.
Trump’s allies in the state, including Nevada’s popular Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, have urged GOP voters who participate in the primary to mark “none of these candidates” on the ballot rather than vote for a candidate. They hope to avoid Haley emerging with a larger vote total in the primary than Trump receives in the caucus, a possibility because more voters are expected to cast a ballot in the primary than attend the caucus.
In a Jan. 27 campaign visit to Las Vegas, Trump urged supporters to skip the primary entirely, describing it as a “con job” and a “meaningless event.” The caucus, he said, “is the right way and the legitimate way.”
“Don’t go on Tuesday, Feb. 6,” he told the crowd. “Don’t do it. Don’t use the mail-in ballot.”
“We Will Deliver You 100% of the Delegates”
Because of the primary-caucus confusion, candidates and the national political press have largely ignored Nevada’s “First in the West” contests despite the state’s early spot on the presidential nominating calendar. Trump is the only candidate to visit the state more than once since August.
Democrats have worked since 2007 to establish Nevada as an important early primary state. The effort was spearheaded by the late U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who used caucuses as a party-building exercise. Since then, both parties have held early caucuses with varying success at making them relevant and competitive.
A couple of years back, that looked to be changing. With the caucus process coming under fire for hindering participation, the Nevada Legislature passed a law in 2021 to create this year’s presidential preference election. Although that effort was led by Democratic lawmakers, Republicans had tried years earlier without success to swap the caucus for a primary.
The Nevada GOP rejects the notion that by holding a caucus it has rigged this year’s contest for the former president. But Trump has been actively preparing to secure the nomination for the past year, including courting party insiders across the country. Those efforts extended to Nevada. Early last year he wooed GOP leaders — including Nevada Republican Chairman Michael McDonald, National Committeeman Jim DeGraffenreid and Bruce Parks, chairperson of the second-largest county party — at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
McDonald, DeGraffenreid and Jim Hindle are under indictment for acting as fraudulent electors for Trump in his effort to overturn the 2020 election — charges to which they’ve pleaded not guilty and are arguing to have dropped. Hindle, as Storey County clerk, is responsible for administering elections, putting him in the novel position of overseeing parts of both the primary and the caucus.
“I’m just doing the job I was elected to do,” Hindle said.
Despite claims of neutrality, McDonald has referred to Trump as the “next president of the United States.” At Trump’s January rally, McDonald stated his intentions more explicitly, referring to Trump simply as “the president.”
“When I talked to the president, I said, ‘I guarantee you Nevada will show up and we will deliver you 100% of the delegates for the state of Nevada to Donald J. Trump,’” he said.
While the caucus favors Trump, the party was transparent with Republican voters and GOP presidential candidates in creating it, McDonald argued.
McDonald blamed the state’s lack of a voter identification requirement for the party’s decision to run a caucus, saying Republican voters don’t trust the system without it.
Parks, chairperson of the party in Washoe County, home to Reno, has also been a leading voice in promoting unfounded election fraud allegations. Under his leadership, the county party adopted a resolution in 2022 declaring Joe Biden’s presidency to be illegitimate. Trump endorsed Parks in his reelection bid for county party chair last year, which Parks described as “one of the proudest moments of my life.”
In an interview with ProPublica, Parks said the party’s central committee decided not to participate in Nevada’s new presidential preference primary election because it wants to demonstrate what he contends is the proper way to run an election: required identification, paper ballots and hand-counting with results reported on the same day.
“There was much discussion — the pros and cons were weighed and measured — and in the end, the people decided we are going to do a caucus because it is more secure and more transparent than a universal mail-in system that does not require ID,” he said.
“Anybody who wants to observe is welcome to,” he said before catching himself. “Let me rephrase that: Anybody who is a Republican and can participate in the process is welcome to observe.”
Until ProPublica raised the issue with the state party, Parks said he wouldn’t allow the news media into Washoe County sites. Now, he said he will allow a few reporters into a single caucus site. McDonald said each county’s chairperson decides whether reporters can observe the proceedings. In the past, reporters have not been barred from observing caucuses held by either party in Nevada.
When asked why the GOP was changing its policy, Parks said, “For obvious reasons. There seems to be a shortage of honest reporters. We’re not going to open the doors and allow a particular narrative to be put out there that is not truthful. That is just not going to happen.”
Anyone who disagrees with the way the caucuses are being run can register with the party and keep an eye on things themselves, he said. “You want to make sure everything is above board? Get involved. Most importantly, change your registration and become a Republican,” he said.
Counting caucus results is not the same as counting election results, Ramachandran said. Hand-counting an election with hundreds of thousands of voters and dozens of races is neither efficient nor accurate.
“It’s really important when people are looking at those issues not to make the mistake of comparing apples to oranges,” she said.
Unknown Impact on the General Election
How the confusion and resulting disinformation from the presidential nominating process will influence general-election voter behavior is difficult to forecast. Ramachandran said it’s challenging to study how disinformation affects turnout.
“It’s hard to know who’s been subjected to that confusion or has become susceptible to misinformation, and it’s really hard to tie that to impact on turnout or specific candidates,” she said.
Gallant, who is running for reelection to the Assembly this year, isn’t so sure. Beliefs about unfounded voter-fraud accusations kept Republican voters home in 2020, she said, describing it as “oops, we screwed up.” Polling has backed that up, with surveys showing claims of fraud have made Republicans less likely to vote.
“We’ve done a lot of reeducation around that,” Gallant said, referencing the national party’s “Bank Your Vote” campaign that now encourages Republicans to vote early and by mail.
Jeremy Hughes, a Republican political consultant who is not involved in any of the presidential campaigns this year, said too much is being made over the caucus confusion.
“Donald Trump would have won the primary and he will win the caucus, so the mode of voting isn’t going to matter,” he said. “I have zero concern with it affecting voting behaviors.”