Fear and Voting in Las Vegas

by Adam Fogel // Published January 15, 2008
A lawsuit filed against the Nevada Democratic Party by the state teachers' union has created a political controversy for the Clinton campaign and is a possible attempt to keep some workers on the Las Vegas strip away from the caucuses this Saturday. Days after Barack Obama received the endorsement of the largest union in the state, the Nevada State Education Association filed the suit. The plaintiffs argue that the "at large" precincts located in hotel and casino ballrooms for the workers are unfair to teachers who have to work but do not have the option of caucusing at their school. The Democratic Party established these special caucus sites months ago, with the blessing of many of the plaintiffs listed in the suit. Commentators have noted that some leaders of the teachers' union support Senator Clinton for president, although they have no official role in the campaign and the Clinton camp has not taken a position on the issue.

FairVote executive director Rob Richie commented that the timing of the lawsuit is problematic. He told The Nation, "The time to discuss the fairness of caucus sites is long past. You simply don't want to reduce the number of places to vote or do a last-minute change if you want people to participate. Caucus turnout already promises to be distressingly low for representative outcomes." Former FairVote board member and Obama supporter Jamie Raskin added, "The Equal Protection claim in this case is silly and would be thrown out even if it hadn't been raised in the eleventh hour in a transparently political way. The claim boils down to the argument that it discriminates against teachers and other professionals to set up polling places in casinos for people who work there since these employees then get an unfair advantage in access to the polls. On this curious theory, of course, it would violate Equal Protection for some people to live two miles away from a polling place while others live on the same block. The irony is that most polling places are in public schools [where Nevada State Education Association members work]!"

This whole controversy adds to a broader debate about the problems associated with caucuses and the primary process more generally. How democratic is a process where people have to take off work or find a baby sitter for up to two hours? Who benefits from a system where voter participation is dismally low and ballots are cast in a public forum (not in secret, as we are used to for most elections)? Shouldn't people who can't attend the caucuses but still want to have a say in who the Democratic nominee is have a chance to make their voice heard? The teacher's may have a point though--why shouldn't they be able to vote where they work? In fact, why shouldn't everyone be able to vote where they work?

If states are going to continue using the caucus system, they have an obligation to their citizens and to the democratic process to encourage participation by expanding the number of caucus sites and increasing opportunities for all citizens to participate in the process.

UPDATE: January 17, 2008 Judge Dismisses Nevada Caucus Challenge By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Filed at 2:31 p.m. ET

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- An attempt by Democrats with ties to Hillary Rodham Clinton to prevent casino workers from caucusing at special precincts in Nevada failed in court Thursday.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan was presumed to be a boost for Clinton rival Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential caucuses Saturday because he has been endorsed by the union representing many of the shift workers who will be able to use the precincts on the Las Vegas strip.

''State Democrats have a First Amendment right to association, to assemble and to set their own rules,'' Mahan said. Nevada's Democratic Party approved creation of the precincts to make it easier for housekeepers, waitresses and bellhops to caucus during the day near work rather than have to do so in their neighborhoods.

The state teacher's union, which has ties to Clinton, and other plaintiffs brought the suit against the special precincts shortly after local 226 of the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama for the Democratic nomination. The union is the largest in Nevada, with 60,000 members. The Clinton campaign said it was not involved in the suit.