Voting is under way across Nevada as the most diverse state so far has its say in the Democrats' nomination fight, with leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders leading the race.

A volunteer counts votes during the Nevada caucuses to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate at the caucus polling station inside the Coronado High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 22, 2020.
A volunteer counts votes during the Nevada caucuses to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate at the caucus polling station inside the Coronado High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 22, 2020. (AFP)

Democrats in the US state of Nevada on Saturday began a high-stakes selection process, meeting at glitzy Las Vegas casinos and hundreds of other sites to help decide who should challenge President Donald Trump in November's election, with leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders atop the polls.

Voting began at noon (2000 GMT).

The western state, home to three million people, is holding the third contest in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Nevada's vote may serve to entrench Sanders's status as the frontrunner before "Super Tuesday" on March 3, when 14 states vote.

Or it could provide a much-needed boost for one of the moderate candidates desperate to halt his rise.

In Las Vegas, caucuses were held in several of the city's world-famous casinos and hotels. In a cavernous ballroom in the luxurious Bellagio Hotel, casino workers assembled under ornate chandeliers to caucus before hurrying back to work.

'Very, very low-tech' 

Officials in Nevada, keen to avoid the drawn-out embarrassment of the Iowa caucus, which relied on flawed technology to relay results, pivoted to a "very, very low-tech" system, said Jon Summers, a senior advisor to the state Democratic Party.

Officials will phone in results from the state's 252 voting locations, backed up with photographs of paper count sheets.

On the eve of the vote, Sanders was hit with published revelations from US officials that Russia –– which interfered in the 2016 US election in a bid to boost Trump and is allegedly trying to do so again –– was also actively trying to help Sanders's presidential bid.

The senator immediately rejected any help that might come from Vladimir Putin's government, instructing the Russian president to "stay out of American elections."

The Democratic race is entering an urgent phase. Any momentum from Nevada, and South Carolina which votes on February 29, could prove decisive. Poor showings could be a death knell for some campaigns.

With eight contenders still seeking the Democratic nomination, Sanders leads in polling in Nevada and nationally by about 11 points over the second-place candidate, former vice president Joe Biden.

Sanders was in high spirits on Friday as he spoke at a natural amphitheater in Las Vegas.

Two thousand supporters cheered the 78-year-old senator who promised action on health care, climate change, and gun control.

Focus on Bloomberg

Recently, Sanders has been largely unchecked by opponents focused more on blunting the advance of Democratic rival Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who has poured a record $438 million of his personal fortune into advertising.

With Bloomberg unconventionally sitting out the four contests before Super Tuesday, Nevada is a fierce battleground for the other candidates.

Its diverse Democratic electorate, one-third of whom are Hispanic, may bolster the fortunes of moderates like South Bend, Indiana's former mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who up until now have struggled to win minority voters.

The race's other centrist, Biden –– once the frontrunner –– is desperate to right a listing ship.

After humiliating performances in the first contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, another poor showing could spell disaster.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has stagnated, hopes her standout performance in Wednesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas –– where she eviscerated Bloomberg over women's misconduct claims against him –– will earn Nevadans' respect.

Hoping to avoid chaos 

With Democrats barnstorming the state on Friday, Trump rallied supporters in Las Vegas, where he savaged the "sick" and "radical socialist" contenders for his job.

Sanders is "crazy," Warren is "a mess" and Biden is "angry," while Bloomberg was "gasping for breath" after the debate, the president said.

Nevada votes in a caucus format. Unlike in a primary, where voting is by secret ballot, caucusgoers attend precinct gatherings where they vote publicly by standing with fellow supporters of their chosen candidate.

Democratic officials insisted the disarray over Iowa's results would not be repeated.

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told reporters that while the goal was to have results by Saturday night, the more important objective was "to get it right."

Trump nonetheless sought to sow doubt.

"I heard their computers are all messed up just like Iowa," he told his rally, citing no evidence.

Summers, the Democratic Party advisor, gave that warning short shrift.

"As usual, he has no idea what he's talking about," he told AFP.

"This is just Donald Trump, very scared of his own re-election chances, trying to (depress) turnout, trying to make it look like things are going to be weak here today -- and it's actually the exact opposite."

Source: AFP