I speak of the caucus, which needs to have a stake driven right through its evil heart. Here’s what Democrats did at their meeting in Chicago:
The new party rules undo decades-old reforms that empowered hundreds of party activists and elected officials, often referred to as “superdelegates,” whose presidential convention votes were not bound to the results of primaries or caucuses. They also affirm the decision of six states to move from caucuses, which have favored insurgent candidates, to primaries, which tend to have higher turnout.
The superdelegates (generally, elected officials and high-ranking party poobahs) weren’t eliminated, but they won’t be able to vote on the first ballot. If there is a winner from the vote of the ordinary delegates, that person is the nominee. Which is fine. The Democratic superdelegate system was devised in order to create a fail-safe against the nomination of a demagogue such as Donald Trump but, so far, their intervention hasn’t been necessary.
But what about the caucuses? Every four years, reporters troop to Iowa to offer soft-focus portraits of this relic of old-timey democracy, during which well-informed heartland voters trudge through the snow to their local middle school or VFW hall to convene with their neighbors, deliberate over their choices, listen to boring speeches, and enact an arcane ritual that often involves standing in different corners, horse-trading votes, and shuffling around until a winner is finally declared. It’s nostalgic! It’s participatory! It’s charming! It’s an inspiring example of democracy in action!
Hogwash. It’s anti-democratic, and it needs to be destroyed. And, thank goodness, it’s beginning to happen.
What’s wrong with a caucus? All the problems stem from the fact that, unlike voting, caucusing can take hours. Because everyone knows what a pain it is, turnout in caucus states is significantly lower than it would otherwise be.
How much lower? Let’s look at some numbers from 2016, courtesy of Professor Michael McDonald. In states that held caucuses in 2016, turnout percentages were often in the single digits. To take one vivid example, Minnesota always has some of the highest turnout rates in the country; their turnout was 74 percent in the general election. But during their nominating caucus? Only 8 percent. Fifty-seven percent of Nevadans turned out in the general election; their caucus turnout was also 8 percent. Fifty-eight percent of Kansans voted in the general; 5.5 percent voted in the caucus.
The most vivid comparison is that of Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states that vote. Both get huge amounts of attention from candidates and the media, both supposedly take their responsibilities in choosing the next president very seriously, and both fiercely guard their privileged position in the process. Turnout for the 2016 New Hampshire primary was 52.4 percent. For the Iowa caucuses, it was only 15.7 percent.
Low turnout is a problem in and of itself, since it means these vital choices are being made by a tiny portion of the population. But it is also a problem because caucuses skew toward certain kinds of people. The best way to think about it is: Who can’t go to a caucus? People who have children and cannot afford a babysitter. People who work jobs in things such as fast food and retail, who have no power over their schedules. People who are ill or disabled and have trouble leaving their homes. In other words, if you’re an able-bodied retiree with plenty of time on your hands, they work fine. Not so much for everyone else.
The states where the Democratic parties (and sometimes the Republican parties as well) are leaving caucuses behind are Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Utah and Nebraska. In some cases, legislation has already been passed or parties have changed their rules, while in others the final decisions haven’t yet been made. That leaves Iowa, Nevada, Alaska, North Dakota, Kansas, Hawaii, and Wyoming where the Democrats will still hold caucuses in 2020. Hopefully, those states will come around.
The DNC will now require Democratic caucuses to accept absentee votes, which will go a good way toward reducing their discriminatory effects. But it would be far better to get rid of caucuses entirely. The caucus system is one of those things that persists only because a tiny number of people see advantage in it, and everybody else just accepts that, since it is the way things have been done for a long time, it’s how things should continue to be.
But if Democrats are going to advocate a comprehensive election-reform agenda built on the principle that elections should be as easy and convenient as possible — so that they are as inclusive as possible — they need to get rid of caucuses once and for all.