Kill the Caucus

Imagine a developing country that is relatively new to democracy holds an election with the following characteristics:

The election is held during a relatively short window of time during which many would-be participants are unable to attend due to work commitments. Registered voters are required to re-register before participating, resulting in long lines that force still more would-be participants who took time off to go back to work.

There is no absentee voting, as votes are cast by participants gathering in rooms in their local precincts and physically standing in the corner of the candidates of their choice. Uncommitted voters are able to hear pitches from local representatives for each of the candidates before deciding, but these pitches are presented in front of the rest of the voters in the room, often resulting in shouting matches between the respective camps. This part of the election is administered almost entirely by volunteers, many of whom are completely new to the process themselves, and the proceedings in some rooms (including the choices of late-deciding voters) are broadcast on national television for entertainment purposes.

Raw vote totals are not reported. Instead, members of the bureaucracy administering the election use a proprietary formula to convert vote totals into close-but-not-quite-representative electoral vote equivalents, which are used to decide how electoral votes are apportioned. However, rather than simply count up electoral votes nationwide, they are apportioned on a district-by-district basis.

An American election observer would not recognize the results of such an election as being valid. They would say that the ballot was not accessible to many potential participants, and that there were too many points at which the participation of those who did show up could have potentially been manipulated, diluted or ignored outright. This being the case, it’s simply impossible to tell if the results accurately reflect the aggregate preferences of the population in question.

And yet, the election I just described is the Nevada Caucuses.

The Democratic Party logo, via Wikimedia Commons

The Democratic Party logo, via Wikimedia Commons

The Caucuses were an absolute disaster on Saturday. At one point on MSNBC (which really did broadcast an undecided voter making his decision between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton live) Chris Hayes reported that the process had been disorganized, complicated and haphazard. He then talked to a precinct captain, who was caucusing for Clinton, who agreed that she was frustrated with the process and thought a primary would be better. The next person Hayes talked to, a first-time participant caucusing for Sanders, was similarly frustrated.

I’ve yet to see a single person come away from the caucuses with a good (or even bad) argument as to why they are preferable to one person/one vote primaries. Hillary Clinton won, taking 19 delegates to Sanders’s 15, but she won in a process that was so busted it’s difficult to say whether she or Sanders was more disadvantaged by the caucusing process. In other words, I’m not sure Sanders supporters can make a compelling case that, had Nevada held a primary instead of a caucus, the results would have been different. For all we know, Clinton could have won a primary by even more. We simply don’t know.

When the goal is to nominate a candidate for president, that’s a huge problem.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • It is a mess. Let’s all remember this in 2017. In the middle of an election is probably not the time to get structural changes to happen. Both parties have a problem with an angry base and out-of-touch leadership. The first to address that problem is going to have an advantage in 2018. My money is on neither party’s leadership addressing anything but their own agenda.

  • angryspittle

    Eliminate the damn voting machines, cast paper ballots clearly marked and recountable and every person born in the US should be automatically registered when they turn 18.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The US and the Democrat and Republican parties are not democratic. All are owned by the rich and are instruments of the rich. None of them can be reformed, in fact attempts to reform them are futility defined.

  • And Nevada and Iowa are just a symptom of an increasingly broken voting process that is broken on all levels:

    – Registration to vote: If you can register for any kind of government service, benefit, or obligation, voter registration ought to be automatic and affirmative. In fact, opting out of voter registration is the thing which should require a special form to be filed, not the other way around.

    – Voting day: Needs to be moved to a national paid-time-off holiday for all, including minimum wage workers.

    – Early and absentee voting: There needs to be national standards for early voting days, as well as mandated provisions for mail-in and online balloting.

    – Vote counting: No part of vote counting should be in the hands of partisan local officials. Just witness the frequent shenanigans out of Waukesha county, Wisconsin, where they achieve Soviet-era levels of voter participation (as in close to 100%) and conveniently find thousands of ballots whenever a Republican candidate needs them. Or the fact the chain-of-custody of Ohio’s vote counts in 2004 were pretty clearly broken. This sort of thing needs to be in the hands of non-partisan commissions.

    – Gerrymandering: Same deal. Redistricting should be non-partisan. If it takes a Constitutional amendment to make this the law, fine. A state’s representation in our Congress ought to roughly match its demographics and political registrations.

    – Primaries: These need to be overhauled massively. The fundamental flaws of caucuses is just one of the problems. There is no rational reason for Iowa and New Hampshire always to be first.

    – Compressed election cycle: Nearly everyone agrees the election process is way the hell too long in the U.S., and the length of that election campaign period is one of the reasons it costs so damned much.

    – Electoral college: Abolish it. The president should be whomever wins the most popular votes, nationwide, including citizens of DC, Puerto Rico, and the territories and commonwealths.

    – Funding: Citizens United needs to be overturned, period, and sensible campaign donations and spending limits reimposed. The way SuperPACs are allowed now, it is entirely possible for foreign billionaires and multinational corporations to secretly buy their way into U.S. elections.

    In short, the whole system was limping along for generations, often openly corrupted for partisan or discriminatory purposes. Lately, the Republicans in particular have been exploiting this for their own purposes, usually through voter suppression measures. But now we’re also seeing how it’s mucking up the Democratic primaries, too — this time rather nakedly being manipulated so that the candidate preferred by the oligarch establishment has an unfair advantage.

  • hiker_sf

    Thanks for dissecting this process, Jon. What a mess.

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