Why Caucus?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

IMAGINE AN election system that doesn't permit soldiers serving overseas to cast their votes for president. Imagine a system that requires some voters to choose between following the dictates of their faiths or participating in an election. Imagine a system that disenfranchises voters who are hospitalized, or scheduled to work, or out of town on the day and time set for the election. You don't need much imagination for this, because America has just such a system and is using it to help pick the next president. It's called caucuses, and it is the way that citizens express their presidential preferences in more than a dozen states.

Consider the Nevada caucuses set for this morning. Saturday is celebrated as the Sabbath by Jews and Seventh-day Adventists. Synagogues hold Shabbat services on Saturday mornings and, perhaps more important, Orthodox Jews are prohibited from driving or doing other activity that could be viewed as work, which would include participating in caucuses. As the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, put it in a statement this week, "In a country that values religious liberty, no person should ever be forced to choose between practicing their religion and participating in their democracy." This is not a hypothetical problem; Nevada has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the country.

There are legitimate considerations that could prompt states to choose to conduct their presidential nominee selection process by caucuses rather than primaries. Caucuses are party-building events designed not only to express presidential preferences but to hash out party platforms. They can create a sense of belonging to a community. But these advantages seem more theoretical than real -- most caucusgoers do not stick around to debate the fine points of platforms -- and in any event they are outweighed by the all-too-real drawbacks of a system that cannot help but disenfranchise some would-be voters.

The primary calendar is in need of a dramatic overhaul. The fairness -- and future -- of the caucus system should be a part of that debate.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company