Here's Everything You Need To Know About How Caucuses Really Work

Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

The Nevada Democratic caucuses are on Saturday, Feb. 22, and state election officials are trying to avoid the controversy that surrounded the Iowa caucuses earlier this month. Only four states and three U.S. territories hold Democratic caucuses, but these nominating contests are nonetheless critical to a presidential primary bid. So, how do caucuses work? The process is often lengthy and convoluted.

Unlike primaries, where voters simply mail in a ballot or fill one out at their polling place, caucuses require extensive participation. On the day of a state caucus, voters registered with a certain political party attend hours-long meetings at predetermined precinct locations. There, voters divide themselves into groups based on their preferred candidates; undecided voters have their own groups, too. The main purpose of a caucus is to give voters room to debate each candidate's merits and talk about the issues that matter to them.

How Does A Caucus Begin?

According to The Washington Post, a caucus has several important steps. First, volunteers calculate the number of caucus-goers at their specific location. In Nevada's case for 2020, volunteers will also need to take early voters into account for the first time ever, according to CNN. As caucus chairs open up proceedings, campaign representatives who are canvassing in a given precinct, which is like a voting district, for their chosen candidates typically have a short period of time to make a pitch to convince undecided voters, and preselected precinct captains for each candidate's campaign must stand in a specific spot so caucus-goers know where to go. Caucus attendees must then stand in groups with people who share their candidate preferences, or they can stand with fellow undecided voters. It's not as simple as counting the number of people in each group, though — this is merely the beginning of multiple rounds of voting.


During this first round, any candidates who secure at least 15% of caucus-goers' votes are considered "viable" and move on to the next round. This 15% threshold is typical, but may be adjusted based on the number of caucus participants in a certain precinct. That's why volunteers must calculate the total number of participants — both in-person and early voters — before a caucus can start. Any voters who chose a "viable" candidate are not permitted to defect from their chosen candidate, so they simply need to submit a card with the name of their candidate on it and they can leave. These cards are useful for creating a paper trail in the event of a recount.

What Is Realignment?

Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

For voters who choose "non-viable" candidates — one who did not receive at least 15% of the vote in the first round — the process is longer. During the second round, which is called "realignment," these voters have a few choices. They can realign themselves with candidates who were viable in the first round, or with candidates who were close to the 15% viability threshold. They can also join the group of undecided voters, or stick with their original candidate and try to convince other voters to join them. New this year, Nevada residents who voted early had to rank a few different candidates, so their votes will be realigned automatically based on their second and third choices if their first choice isn't deemed viable. As was the case in Iowa, campaign representatives and supporters can use the realignment round to sway voters toward their candidate, which makes this round a key platform for discussions between voters.

Candidates' campaigns may also make deals ahead of time to help each other during the realignment process, so if one candidate doesn't meet the viability threshold, their supporters will realign with a candidate who shares some of their values. This makes voters' second-choice candidate just as critical — if not moreso — than their first choice.

How Are Delegate Equivalents Calculated?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Once caucus-goers participate in the final realignment process, volunteers must calculate the percentage of the total vote that each candidate's group received. In Nevada, they must complete and record these calculations in two different places: on a physical "caucus math poster" that acts as a worksheet, and in a Google Forms application on iPads provided by state party officials. According to The New York Times, the application is supposed to help volunteers check for mathematical errors, determine candidate viability, and calculate delegate totals.

Each of the candidates' voter shares must then be converted to the number of county delegates each candidate will receive. A delegate elected through the primary or caucus process is someone who represents a certain candidate at state and national conventions. They are essentially a "vote" toward a specific candidate, which helps them immensely at the Democratic National Convention. The delegates that candidates receive during the primary are pledged toward them at the convention, thereby bringing them a step closer to becoming the party's nominee. As BuzzFeed News reported, the Democratic Party allocates a total of 3,979 delegates across all of the primaries and caucuses, and a candidate must win a delegate majority — that is, 1,991 delegates — in order to secure the Democratic nomination.

To better understand how the delegate allocation process works, The New York Times provided a good example of delegate calculations. Suppose there's a precinct that is response for electing eight delegates to the county convention. Imagine that 100 voters participate in this precinct's caucus, including both physical caucus-goers and early voters. If four candidates remain viable after the final alignment and each of them receive 25 votes, then they will split the delegates evenly, with each candidate receiving two delegates.

But delegate counts are rarely even like this. Suppose instead, one candidate gets 33% of the vote. In that case, they would get 2.67 delegates. You can't actually split a physical delegate, though, so this number would be rounded up to three. In case this rounding logic causes two candidates to tie in their voter percentages, states have tie-breaker mechanisms in place to decide who gets the greater number of delegates. Iowa uses a coin flip, while Nevada is expected to use a card game. According to Vox, these county delegate numbers are then weighted to estimate their "state delegate equivalents," which are the number of state delegates that each candidate can expect to receive at the state convention — where they'll assign national delegates. Only candidates that are viable after the final realignment are assigned state delegate equivalents, per ABC News. These state delegate equivalents are then used to calculate the number of delegates each candidate will get at the Democratic National Convention.

According to NBC News, Iowa sends 41 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, while Nevada sends 36. Pledged delegates are those that are already committed to a particular candidate, while additional unpledged delegates — also known as superdelegates — are selected by Democratic Party officials.

What Is Different About The 2020 Caucuses?

Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In 2020, Democratic state officials in Iowa and Nevada changed how they would calculate and present their results. In Nevada, voters must submit their final results to the state Democratic Party in four ways: with the Google Forms app, a telephone hotline, a text message to the state party that includes a photo of the paper worksheet, and a physical backup of the paper worksheet that state officials will collect from the caucus sites.

Caucus results aren't the only thing that are new in 2020. Early voting — which plays a key role in how Nevada's caucus results will be calculated, as illustrated above — took place for the first time ahead of the state's Feb. 22 caucus. Nevada residents were able to participate in early voting between Feb. 15 and Feb. 18, per CNN.

According to NBC News, state officials will also have to provide the raw vote totals for the first and final realignments from each precinct, as well as the total voter turnout — including both caucus-goers and early voters — in each precinct. In addition, state officials will have to release the number of county delegates won by each candidate in every precinct. When the public receives the results, they'll be able to see more than just the state delegate equivalents, which have historically been used to determine caucus victories. This way, the public can actually check state officials' math to verify that the candidates' delegate counts are accurate.

This desire for accuracy is especially tangible in Nevada, where state officials are scrambling to avoid a controversy akin to the one that unfolded in Iowa. In Iowa, an app that state officials commissioned to gather results more efficiently experienced a few glitches, causing errors in caucus results and significantly delaying the public release of these numbers. As the Nevada caucus approaches, NPR reported that Sanders stands a good chance of winning, though Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are both looking to rejuvenate their campaigns with Nevada's far more diverse voter base.