America’s Two Parties Must Kill The Caucus
Now that the primary season of 2016 is all but a distant memory, it’s time to look back at the mistakes of the primaries of both party primaries. Among the most egregious were the 15 Democratic caucuses and 9 Republican state caucuses, plagued by low turnout, procedural errors, and delays.
Caucuses reduce voter turnout.
Caucuses mandate that the voter be present for several hours at one particular location, at one specific time, with no exceptions. With the exception of an experimental telecaucus in Iowa (which required preregistration months in advance), and absentee caucus voting in Washington, there are no exceptions. Anyone not available is prevented from voting. The effects on turnout are significant.
In 2008, Utah held Democratic and Republican primaries, with over 428,000 voters turning out between the two parties. In 2016, Utah decided against funding primaries, placing the cost burden on the parties. To cut costs, the Utah Republican and Democratic parties switched to caucuses. Turnout in the 2016 caucuses dipped to 280,000, despite dramatically increased interest in the GOP nomination in the extremely red state.
Voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses was 15.7%, with the state having same day caucus registration while turnout reached 52.4% in New Hampshire’s primary a week later, despite the state requiring voter registration almost weeks in advance. The nonbinding Washington primary held months after the state’s heavily hyped caucuses still saw higher voter turnout than the binding caucus. Wisconsin’s primaries had a 49.4% voter turnout, while Maine’s Democratic caucuses had a 6.1% turnout, and Kansas’ caucuses had a mere 5.5% turnout. Not a single primary state saw single digit turnout, but multiple caucus states did.
Is 5% turnout a fair reflection of the entire electorate? Is 5% voter turnout democracy?
Caucuses grossly distort the outcome.
As mentioned above, Washington State and Nebraska both held nonbinding primaries months after their caucuses. The results of those primaries were dramatically different than what the caucuses only a few months prior had shown. Hillary won the Washington State primary, even as she lost the caucuses by a 72%-27% margin. While Bernie won Washington State’s caucuses by over a 40% margin, he won the neighboring state of Oregon by only a 12% margin, despite Oregon’s more Sanders favoring demographics, because Oregon held a primary, instead of a caucus.
The evidence is overwhelming that caucuses result in different outcomes than primaries, because caucus voters are not the same as the overall primary electorate. Candidates that do not generate grassroots enthusiasm do not perform nearly as well as candidates with energized supporters, and campaigns with better organization and outreach to loyal supporters perform better in caucuses than campaigns that do not. As a result, Bernie Sanders won 13 of 15 caucuses, while only winning 10 of 39 primaries. On the GOP side, Ted Cruz also did disproportionately well in caucuses.
Furthermore, the multi-level system of caucuses and allocation rules in many states distort final delegate allocation, even from the will of the voters who showed up to their precinct caucuses on caucus night. In Nevada’s Democratic caucuses, these distortions have been laid bare. In 2008, Hillary won the Nevada Democratic caucuses by a 5 point margin, yet lost the overall delegate count because rural caucuses, which Obama had won, were allocated a disproportionate number of delegates compared to urban caucuses that Hillary won.
In 2016, Hillary once again won Nevada on election night by a 5 point margin, but better organization by the Sanders campaign resulted in more Sanders delegates than Clinton delegates showing up to the second level county conventions, resulting in the delegate total heading into the state convention slightly favoring Bernie. However, issues over delegate credentials and procedure led to a Hillary victory at the state convention, to the ire of Sanders supporters.
I won’t go into the conflicting reports of the Nevada state convention, if you want in-depth reports, read PolitiFact, The Washington Post, or the opinion pieces from the Nevada Democrats or Sanders supporters if you want to read them all. Regardless of who you believe, none of the ensuing chaos and drama would have happened if a primary had been held instead of a caucus.
Caucuses don’t stand up to modern election integrity standards.
Caucuses are not run by states elections divisions, they’re run by political parties; private organizations who have lost clout and organizational strength over the past several decades as their memberships have shrunk and aged. The decline in local party organizational power has manifested itself in caucus disfunction at the precinct level. With parties providing less oversight over the process than a state government, precinct chairs are often poorly trained and caucus volunteers are often ill-equipped to handle the number of caucus goers. Hell, some of the ballot counters wore shirts or hats supporting a specific candidate.
Reports of overcrowding, a lack of ballots, a lack of adherence to proper procedure, short-handedness of volunteers, possible vote manipulation by unscrupulous chairs, and time overruns have been common complaints in virtually every state caucus election. Insert the glaring cameras of the national media and human error, and the process becomes rancorous, with local party chairs sometimes finding themselves splayed on national television.
In a caucus, nobody’s vote is private, resulting in intimidation, bandwagon support, and other forms of social pressure that influence voters. After the Iowa caucuses, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell publicly stated that as a former Soviet elections observer, he would not have certified the results, had the Iowa caucuses happened in the Soviet Union.
The primary reason that caucuses exist in to create a sense of party loyalty that a primary polling booth does not provide. But is that worth reduced voter turnout, and the risk of skewed results that do not represent the overall party electorate? Is it fair to voters in states with who hold smoothly state run elections that their results are being accepted with the same degree of integrity as those in states with poorly ran party elections? The answer is no. The United States, as the world’s strongest and second largest democracy, deserves better.
During the primary season, Sanders supporters have been quick to criticize closed primaries for their low turnout, and because Sanders has performed poorly in them, arguing that open primaries increase voter turnout by allowing independent voters a say in the primary process, and demonstrate Bernie’s strength with independent voters. The irony is that Sanders, who has argued that he performs best when voter turnout is high, has benefitted the most from low turnout caucuses.
This is why Sanders supporters, who have benefited the most from caucuses, must be the ones to fight for the end of caucuses. If Sanders supporters want to fight for a political revolution, the very least they can do is fight to expand voting availability to increase primary turnout beyond single digits, even if that weakens the power of activist enthusiasm. Minnesota’s legislature has already acted, passing a law moving the state from a caucus system to a primary system for presidential nominations. For the sake of democracy, other states follow Minnesota’s lead.