Posted at 04:57 PM ET, 02/14/2012

Should parties say farewell to caucuses?

The Iowa Republican Party declared Mitt Romney the winner of its caucuses on Jan. 3, only to announce two weeks later that the actual winner (if there even was one) was Rick Santorum.


Voters at a Portland, Maine, Republican caucus on Saturday. (Felicia Sonmez/The Washington Post)
Nevada’s Republican Party took two days to tally the results of its caucuses earlier this month — caucuses that saw an even lower turnout this year than four years ago.

And now, in the wake of reports that several counties that held caucuses did not have their results included in the final tally, pressure is building on the Maine Republican Party to withdraw its Saturday announcement that Romney won the presidential straw poll at this month’s municipal caucuses.

Might it be time to take another look at whether caucuses are worth the effort?

Most states holding presidential caucuses (as opposed to primaries) tend to be small ones.

But their impact on the race for the nomination is still significant: Of the 2,286 Republican National Convention delegates, 432 delegates — or 19 percent — will be awarded through the caucus process.

Five states this year have already held GOP presidential caucuses, and 13 more states and territories will hold caucuses before the year is out.

The way those caucuses are used to determine the allocation of delegates varies widely from state to state.

Idaho, for instance, awards most of its national convention delegates proportionally, based on the results of a presidential straw poll to be held at its Super Tuesday caucuses.

But Maine, where most caucuses are held during a week-long window (or in the case of some counties, even longer), holds a presidential straw poll that has zero relation to how its delegates are awarded.

Those in favor of caucuses argue that the nominating contests encourage fuller participation in the political process: Voters don’t simply visit a polling site, fill out a ballot and leave, but rather become actively involved in a meeting of neighborhood party members (or independents who attend a particular party caucus), where decisions are made about not only the presidential race but also the party platform and other matters.

In some caucuses, such as Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, votes are cast not by secret ballot but by publicly announcing one’s support for a candidate — a process that involves plenty of public persuasion and deliberation. That helps contribute to the strength of a local party organization, caucus proponents argue.

Critics of caucuses argue that the low-turnout contests, which typically require voters to spend several hours at a voting site and do not allow for absentee ballots, tend to be dominated by party activists and do not reflect where a state’s broader electorate stands.

Caucuses are also more prone to procedural quirks that can delay or complicate the ballot-counting process. The most recent GOP caucuses, in Maine, are a prime example of what can happen when caucuses turn ugly.

The Pine Tree State’s two-step process meant that in many places, such as in Saturday’s Portland caucuses, the results of the presidential straw poll were not reflected in the actual state delegate vote.

In Portland, Ron Paul narrowly beat Mitt Romney in the straw poll, but when it came time to vote for state delegates about an hour later, most Romney supporters had left the room, and Paul backers — who had significantly out-organized the other campaigns — dominated the delegate vote.

The ballots in the state delegate race were counted onsite, by hand, by about a half-dozen people sitting at a table. In the end, several hours after the vote took place, the results were thrown out because of a 19-vote discrepancy in the final count.

Making matters worse is the fact that all of the trouble was over a race that had drawn a turnout of only about 3 percent: Out of 6,755 registered Republican voters, 223 showed up to vote in Portland on Saturday.

“The historic caucuses served a purpose. I’m not sure whether – a lot of the people I’ve talked to here in Maine have suggested that they want to take a good, hard look at the process,” former New Hampshire governor and Mitt Romney backer John H. Sununu (R) said in an interview at Portland’s caucuses Saturday afternoon. “But I’m not from Maine, so it’s not for me to comment. It’s up to them to make their own decisions.”

With the decision to hold a caucus or a primary largely left up to the states themselves, any national movement to do away with caucuses would probably face an uphill battle.

Still, the 2012 race has seen caucuses more problem-plagued — and attracting lower turnout — than in years past. If the trend continues through the upcoming 13 caucus states and territories, calls for a second look at caucuses may become louder.

By  |  04:57 PM ET, 02/14/2012

 
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