What The Hell Is A Caucus?

With the 2016 presidential election just around the corner, primary elections and caucuses have begun in numerous states to decide who the Democratic and Republican nominees will be, but there is a major problem. Ask any first-time voter to explain what a caucus is, or how it works, and a blank stare is a common response.

We spoke with Layne Hansen, a graduate student and instructor from the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, to gain a better understanding of the difference between general elections and caucuses for the sake of students who may be in the midst of their first election experience, and others who may be green to the whole process in general.

According to Hansen, “The caucus is a lot different than a regular election. Usually, in the general election, you go to a place. You go to a voting booth. They give you a ballot…Some you actually have a card and you put it in… You put in all your votes, it saves it and then they download that information in to the database.”

Whereas general elections are a less personable experience between an individual and a computer screen, the purpose of a caucus is to create a sort of public forum where representatives of candidates make their pitch to the public in order to try and corral supporters who may be on the fence when considering who to give their vote to.

“The caucus is more like an old-style, kind of, town hall meeting, where people actually come in to a public place,” Hansen said. “It’s usually an elementary school, junior high; they have some in the casinos, but it’s geographically based. It’s broken down by county, and so each county is broken down by voting precinct. So, what the states try to do is divide up the counties by population to try to make it as even as possible.”

Individuals are free to come in to the caucus setting with their mind made up, and physically situate themselves in the same area as other supporters of their preferred candidate, or they may wait to hear what the varying representatives have to say before coming to a final decision on who they would like to cast a vote for.

Hansen explains the intricacies of this scenario, stating, “Let’s say this is the Democrat caucus; Hillary, Bernie Sanders, and now let’s say that Jim Webb or O’Malley was still in there. There would be four or five [representatives] kind of scattered around, and so what happens is that the Hillary person…There’s usually one person delegated to do this…They have an opportunity to speak about their candidate and say, ‘Our candidate is the best. Come vote with us.’ And the Bernie person would say the same thing, basically, and then [the supporters] would kind of disperse [and place their votes].”

An important aspect to the caucus that is not present in a primary or general election is the fact that voters must be pre-registered as a Democrat or Republican in order to take part in the caucus. Moderates or independents are not allowed to participate unless they mentally wave their non-partisanship ways and register with a specific party.

With his final statement, Hansen gave a vital bit of information about caucuses that truly encompasses one of the biggest advantages they hold over general elections. It may just be of particular interest to students, and even older individuals, who feel like their opinions aren’t heard or cared about by their government.

“It really is more like that old-style democracy, where, you know, people seem to have their voice, and they can share it with others.”