Jim Kessler is senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank.
The 2016 Democratic platform is certain to take on the issue of voter suppression. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have vowed to tear down barriers to voting, especially for the poor and minorities. The Democratic Platform Committee has already heard testimony calling for changes to make it easier to vote. But no one is calling for a change Democrats could make to remove barriers to voting in their own party: junking caucus elections that are elitist, inconvenient, intimidating, anti-Democratic and suppress the vote.
If voter suppression is truly a Democratic concern, consider that fewer people participated in the 17 caucus races in the recently completed Democratic nominating contest than those who turned out for the Wisconsin primary alone. These 17 caucus races with minuscule turnout selected 528 earned delegates to the convention. Wisconsin, where roughly the same number of voters cast a ballot, chose just 86 delegates. If that seems undemocratic, it is.
Caucus elections gained popularity in the early 1800s as part of reform efforts to wrest control of elections from elected officials during times of low citizen knowledge and scant participation. Caucuses made sense when electing Ranse Stoddard of Shinbone to fight for statehood south of the picketwire. But then came radio, and at that point the need to gather, debate and vote in large public halls drew to a close.
Now caucuses are an anachronism. If they were merely a quaint tradition of citizen engagement, they could be tolerated. Instead they keep people who would otherwise vote from participating. They are time consuming, often lasting hours, which means single parents need to hire a babysitter to cast a ballot. That’s getting pretty close to a poll tax. If you work on the day of a caucus, forget it. Mail in or online voting? There’s no such thing. And as for a secret ballot, the hallmark of our democracy, in many caucuses voting is public and intimidating — exactly what Democrats say they are fighting against.
The result is not only exceedingly low turnout but outcomes that don’t reflect voter will. In the 17 caucus races, Bernie Sanders won 61 percent to 39 percent. In primary races where people simply cast their ballots in a booth or mailed them in, Hillary Clinton won 57 percent to 43 percent. Washington State, which held both a caucus and a primary, is a shining example of the perverseness of this voting system. In the caucus, where 230,000 people participated, Sanders won 73 percent and captured 74 of 101 delegates. In a nonbinding primary several weeks later, in which precisely zero delegates were awarded, more than 800,000 Washingtonians exercised their right to vote and Clinton captured 52 percent. The will of hundreds of thousands of voters seems to mean absolutely nothing under this system.
Last fall, I attended a national gathering on local economic development hosted by the Brookings Institution. I met a woman from Iowa who ran the economic development program for her county. She was civically engaged enough to fly to Washington, D.C., to attend this summit. She told me she had already met three of the candidates vying for the presidency. But when I asked her who she would vote for, she said she had attended one caucus and would never go back. She felt that voting shouldn’t be that hard, public, or intimidating. She’s right. Junk the caucuses.