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Turnout is sparse in Nevada primary contests where voters have few choices on the ballot

Former President Donald Trump isn't on Tuesday's ballot, but he will be on Thursday's caucus ballot, which will be used to allocate the state's delegates.
Residents Vote In Nevada Presidential Primary Election
A voter casts a ballot at a polling station in Las Vegas on Tuesday.Ian Maule / Bloomberg via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Nevada’s first presidential primary in decades was drawing light voter interest Tuesday, with Democrats having banked ballots through early and mail-in voting while Republicans looked ahead to competing caucuses on Thursday.

The Nevada secretary of state reported that just 3,800 Nevadans showed up at the polls in the first three hours of voting Tuesday, as President Joe Biden faces only nominal opposition in the Democratic race and Republican front-runner Donald Trump isn’t even on his party’s ballot.

“Oh, this is a disappointing voter turnout,” a voter said as he arrived at an empty polling site at the Silver Springs Recreation Center in Henderson.

Ultimately, only about 125,000 Nevadans voted in the Democratic primary and 80,000 in the Republican primary, NBC News estimates.

Nevada Republicans are holding separate caucuses Thursday to determine delegates to the national convention. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley does appear on Tuesday’s primary election ballot, though some Republicans voting Tuesday opted to vote for “None of These Candidates” to indicate their support for Trump. 

Both parties had opted for caucuses to determine delegates in previous elections. But state lawmakers moved to a primary for 2024 after the Democratic National Committee adopted new rules discouraging caucuses and issued a revised calendar that unseated Iowa and New Hampshire from their traditional leadoff contests.  

Voters and local officials also attributed low turnout to bad weather and competing interest from Las Vegas’ first Super Bowl on Sunday. Local media has been providing blanket coverage of the build-up to the NFL’s signature event rather than the noncompetitive nominating contests.

“A lot of people are confused on the Republican side, because you have two options here,” Tom Sobol, a registered Republican, said after he cast his vote in Las Vegas. Sobol said he also planned to caucus for Trump on Thursday.

“It’s kind of sad, you know, they changed the rules,” he said. “I think everybody believes it’s going to be Donald Trump anyway."

By midday, only 30 people had voted at Martha King Elementary School in Boulder City. Alison Inglett, who said she was unable to attend a caucus Thursday, said she also opted for “None of These Candidates” in Tuesday’s primary.

“I think it adds too much confusion,” she said of the separate contests. “I think it’s just another way to manipulate the political system. And it doesn’t actually really give everyone a chance to speak and give their opinion for candidates.” 

Despite low turnout Tuesday, Democrats highlighted what they considered a strong showing in early and mail-in balloting ahead of primary day in what the Biden campaign sees as a critical organizing test in the general election battleground. A memo from the Nevada Democratic Party noted that before Tuesday, turnout among Democrats had already nearly matched the total turnout in the highly competitive 2020 Democratic caucuses.

According to the secretary of state’s office, 62% of the 127,716 mail-in ballots that had been accepted for counting were in the Democratic primary, as were nearly 61% of the 14,400 early in-person votes.

“I believe Biden is doing an excellent job,” said Wanda Maria Pacheco Newton, who voted Tuesday in Las Vegas. “I’m sorry that he doesn’t get recognized for it.”

Biden held a rally here Sunday night and met with union workers Monday, a week after campaign stops by Vice President Kamala Harris. Both held multiple stops in South Carolina ahead of the state’s first official Democratic primary, in what the campaign said was a test drive of its engagement nationally with Black voters. But as a Biden adviser put it, “Nevada is about November.”

Nevada Democrats Executive Director Hilary Barrett said, “Nevada Dems and the Biden for Nevada team are working together to leverage the presidential preference primary to begin early engagement with the communities we know will make up our margin of victory.”  

The combined early, mail and in-person voting turnout in Nevada lags behind the more than 450,000 votes cast in the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary. There, even with Biden left off the ballot, the turnout of 125,811 in the Democratic primary was only slightly behind the 131,286 votes cast in South Carolina’s Democratic primary.

Speaking Saturday after polls closed, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., suggested that the Democratic National Committee should reverse its decision not to seat New Hampshire’s delegates.

“They worked hard. And they won a victory, and I would like to see [it] as a sign of us all coming together, marching to victory in November,” he said of New Hampshire Democrats who ran a grassroots write-in campaign.