The Case Against Caucuses: The Real Problem with Primaries

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The Case Against Caucuses: The Real Problem with Primaries

If you’re a Democratic voter paying any attention at all this primary season, you’ve no doubt heard how, on a number of levels, the various state primaries are unfair for one reason or another. There has been much debate around the injustice of closed primaries, those that don’t allow Independents or Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries, perhaps most heatedly around New York’s closed primary, about which Bernie Sanders said, “today, 3 million people in the state of New York who are independents have lost their right to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary. That’s wrong. You’re paying for this election. It’s administered by the state. You have a right to vote. And that’s a very unfortunate thing which I hope will change.” Independents would have had to register as Democrats months before New York’s primary to vote in the April primary.

Many people see such institutional procedures as an issue given that many people weren’t aware of New York’s voting laws and that the implications of these laws were that millions were unable to vote, primarily Independents that might have gone to Sanders, who ended up losing the primary. However, this is just the tip of a larger iceberg that has seen the Democratic National Committee come under increased scrutiny and criticism, most recently over the controversial confrontations between party officials and Sanders supporters at the Nevada Democratic convention.

In spite of this scrutiny of the democratic process, there has been little critique of or questions regarding caucuses, which are even more restrictive and disenfranchising than closed primaries – and it’s not even close.

Take, for example, a recent report from the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights that found, on average, that the eligible voter turnout in states with primaries throughout 2016 has been 32.4 percent as opposed to just 9.9 percent for caucus states.

In a press release the committee noted that “the caucus method of voting consistently produces lower voter turnout than the primary election method of voting. The comparisons are striking.”

The below graph further outlines the significant differences in eligible voter turnout between states that hold primaries and those that hold caucuses (click image to open a larger version in a new window):


If you think about how caucuses actually play out in real time, this makes sense. Caucus goers must show up at a specific time, spending numerous hours engaged in the overall process which includes hearing speeches for the candidates, dividing into groups, selecting delegates, and additional actions. This contrasts greatly from primaries, closed or not, which much more closely align with general election procedures. Voters go to their designated polling place, choose their preferred candidate, pick up their “I voted” sticker, and goes about their day. The whole process is done in private and can take as little as thirty minutes. Additionally, if you’re unable to vote during regular polling hours, a voter can generally vote early or by mail. This is of course not possible across the board, given some states have taken coercive measures to curtail voting rights such as voter ID laws and ending early voting.

This certainly depresses voter turnout, more often than not for people of lower socioeconomic status who might not have the job security to take time off work, service members abroad, and people with children who are unable to hire babysitters or care takers.

Is this what we want when we’re looking at the ways to make a nomination process more democratic?

Another consideration is that party volunteers instead of the state government run caucuses, which create issues with election integrity and process As Cary R. Covington of the University of Iowa’s political science department told Think Progress, “even the best trained and conscientious people don’t [always] follow through and do their jobs.”

In essence, as David Atkins summed it up in the Washington Monthly:

“By their very nature, caucuses disenfranchise voters: they’re confusing, stressful and tiring to participate in, they have no voter secrecy or privacy, they require at least an hour of the voter’s time and often more at a very specific time of day, there is no ability to caucus by mail, etc. Caucuses also require chairs, secretaries, check-in volunteers and other officials who count votes, make tallies and determine eligibility….Moreover, the caucuses are always rife with delays and accusations of rigging and corruption by all sides.”

One of the main focuses of Democratic voters this election cycle has been to decry “the establishment” and all the inequalities, real or perceived, this has created in the election process. If we want to seriously interrogate the issues of representation and our nomination process, it’s disingenuous to critique closed primaries and ignore caucuses altogether. Because when it comes to voter turnout, caucuses only have the effect of keeping more people at home, more often than not those that the Democratic party has prided itself on advocating for in the first place.

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