Politics & Government

Minor mistakes by local political parties loom larger in this year's election

A misprinted ballot. A mistake on a voting results website. A simmering feud that leads to a local GOP official's abrupt resignation.

Typically, the minor snafus and interpersonal squabbling of local and state political parties barely get noticed beyond their own insular circles.

But this spring, as the Republican presidential race careens toward a possible contested convention, with every delegate vote potentially crucial, the unpolished operations of smaller party groups have been thrust into an unforgiving spotlight.

Technological misfires and personality clashes are "inherent in grass-roots politics," said Michael Toner, a Republican elections lawyer.

"So much of this work -- whether we're talking about county conventions or state conventions -- the lifeblood is volunteers and activists. Sometimes they get along, sometimes they don't," Toner said. "The difference here is they're doing very important work that could impact a national election."

In one recent example, Republican front-runner Donald Trump slammed the Colorado Republican Party's process for picking delegates, calling it "crooked," after supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz locked up all 34 of the state's available delegate slots.

After Trump spoke, the Colorado Republican chairman, Steve House, wrote on Facebook about receiving thousands of angry telephone calls and death threats.

The ire stems from the state's delegate allocation process: a complicated series of caucuses instead of a direct election.

The system was "simply not equipped to deal with a statewide election," Colorado GOP spokesman Kyle Kohli acknowledged. The party had wanted to move to a primary vote, Kohli said, but an effort to do so failed in the state Legislature.

"The cost was the hang-up," he said.

There were other hiccups at the party's state convention this month: The ballot to pick 13 of the state's delegates had a number of printing mistakes resulting from what officials said were clerical errors.

"These things actually happen every time," said Kohli. "No one's ever seen it before because there's never been so much attention."

That's been a recurrent theme as decisions made by state and local party groups increasingly come under the microscope -- and sometimes under attack.

In many states, county and state conventions are key milestones in the process of selecting delegates to the national political conventions this summer. Those delegates are the people whose votes actually choose the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.

Trump received a boost Tuesday with his sweeping victory in New York, but his clinching of the majority of delegates is still not a sure thing. His campaign and those of Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are scrambling to identify and woo delegates and to seize every possible advantage in the arcane and usually-unseen process.

Each campaign now watches hawk-eyed for the kind of small mistakes seen in Colorado. Any procedural foul-up could potentially be used for what's called a challenge -- an effort by one campaign to deny delegate seats to an opponent's supporters -- when the convention convenes in Cleveland.

"There is a process for bringing that challenge and having it heard before the national convention. I think we're going to see more of that than we have in the past," said Toner.

Part of the trouble stems from state and local parties not adapting to the sudden influx of interest and new participants, said Zachary Moyle, who oversees the delegate operation for Kasich in 19 Western states.

"They've only known how to do things one way," Moyle said. "Chances are it's not going to work very well on this larger scale."

"You need five times the volunteers, you need five times the expenses," he added. "And most importantly you need 10 times the amount of checks and balances you've had in the past."

The dysfunction is not limited to the Republicans. The Colorado Democratic Party came under fire last week, after the Denver Post found it had publicly misreported the results of its March straw poll. Based on the correct numbers, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won one more delegate than initially projected.

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Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said in a statement that the party had posted preliminary results, but had sent more accurate numbers to Sanders' and Hillary Clinton's campaigns.

"We sincerely apologize for this confusion it has caused," he said.

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But because the Republican convention is much more likely to be contested than the Democratic one, the delegate hunt on that side of the aisle is more consequential.

Sometimes, the local groups staging the delegate selection process are not simply unprepared, but debilitated by internal disputes. For political operatives, learning the rivalries and turf wars that govern each individual group is as essential as learning the intricate delegate selection rules that vary by state.

"You have to go to through a large history lesson if you're going to be effective on the ground," said Moyle, former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, which has been notoriously fractious in recent years.

That long-standing discord spilled over into last weekend's convention for the Clark County GOP, the largest county party in Nevada.

The purpose of the gathering was, in part, to designate more than 2,000 people as delegates to next month's state convention, where Nevada's 30-person delegation to the national convention will be chosen.

But the county proceedings, held in a Las Vegas casino, were marred at the outset by confusion over who would be eligible to serve as a state convention delegate. The disorganization -- stemming from an untested new nominating procedure -- was exacerbated by strained relationships between county and state party officials.

Amid the disarray, the county party chairman was replaced as the overseer of the day's event and subsequently resigned from his post.

Meanwhile, campaign and party officials sparred over whether party and state rules required delegates to participate in certain local meetings, an eligibility standard that would favor the better-organized Cruz campaign. Trump, who won the state's caucuses handily, would benefit from a more permissive standard.

"We believe that there may be a number of individuals who have been nominated as a delegate to the state convention who may have never even attended their local precinct meetings -- and that's like trying to play in the Final Four after skipping the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight," said Ryan Hamilton, deputy director for the Cruz campaign in Nevada.

"Poor design and record keeping is hampering our ability to be clear on who did what, when," he said, and he made clear the lapses won't stay in Vegas.

Asked if the confusion could lead to delegate challenges, Hamilton was unequivocal.

"Absolutely," he said.

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