You know, one of the few areas where pretty much everyone to the left of hardcore Republicans agree comes with the idea that everyone should be allowed to vote. Everyone. We progressives are all in favor of stopping any attempt to suppress votes, whether it’s unfairly canceling registrations, purging people of color or Democrats from the rolls or demanding that everyone showing up to vote have “certain types” of picture ID. You know, because no one could ever possibly fake a picture ID.
Likewise, we progressives encourage making voting as easy as possible for everyone, so that more people can participate in the process. We praise the states that have adopted virtually 100% vote-by-mail because it’s incredibly easy for people to do. We love early voting and we happily encourage states to provide voters with as many precincts and voting machines as possible, in order to prevent long lines, especially in those areas with a lot of Democrats and people of color. And we righteously condemn the Republican Party for treating the right to vote as little more than something else they can manipulate.
So, here’s the question of this election season; why do so many progressives seem perfectly okay with the fact that there are so many Democratic primary caucuses? A growing number of states have adopted the caucus model, including some states that used to hold primary elections, and if we are serious about democracy, that needs to stop now. The caucus is the least democratic way to choose a nominee and it’s time we jettisoned that process as such. I mean, come on; many of the same people who complain about the concept of super delegates because they’re “not chosen by the people” seem to have absolutely no problem with the archaic process of the caucus. The funny thing is, super delegates are far less consequential than delegates chosen by caucus. Caucuses are an artifact of the old days, in which party bosses chose nominees, and they’re only slightly more democratic than that.
Iowa is the granddaddy of caucuses. Since Jimmy Carter won them in 1976, the Iowa caucuses have attained far greater status than they deserve. The way it works is, at a particular time of day, usually about 5:30 or 6 p.m., people gather together at one of about 1,700 precinct meeting places, where they separate into groups based on their chosen candidate, with undecideds grouping together separately, only to have campaign surrogates try to talk them into support their candidate.
Votes in a caucus are public; the groupings are chosen in front of friends and neighbors. Forget a secret ballot, and forget the holy sin of campaigning within 200 feet of a polling place (I seem to remember that some progressives wanted Bill Clinton thrown in jail because he showed up at a precinct – just saying), the entire room is all about each campaign actively trying to coerce the undecided into supporting their own choice for nominee. In a year where there are more than 2-3 candidates, if any candidate doesn’t get enough delegates to be viable, those voters are disbanded and asked to throw their support to one of the remaining candidates. How many is “enough”? That depends on the precinct. If the precinct has two delegates, it takes 25 percent to be “viable.” If it has four or more, only candidates with at least 15 percent are “viable.” If there are nine candidates, and four of them have 14 percent or less, everyone who came to the caucus to support one of those four candidates must support someone else, or they can choose to simply leave, since no one is required to be there.
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. If you’re thinking it’s largely much like a primary election, you’re wrong; it’s nothing like that. People who attend caucuses and love them mistake the energy at these meetings for “pure democracy,” but it’s pretty close to the opposite of that. For example, if you’re not able to show up at the designated time, well, that’s just too damn bad; your voice doesn’t count. In Iowa, caucuses are scheduled around 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, so if you work at a restaurant or a bar, or you drive a bus or a cab, the odds of your voice being heard is slim to none. Now, I’m sorry, but how is that not disenfranchising working people? The people who work for what are essentially slave wages are denied a say with regard to which Democrat will run against the GOP? Instead of showing up at a polling place at a time that’s convenient to you and your employer and committing 10 minutes to cast a vote, you have to show up at an appointed time and you have to commit as much as a few hours to the process, which is often not convenient to anyone. And if not, well, too damn bad.
Consider; in Nevada, the caucuses were held on a Saturday at 11 a.m. In a state where the largest county contains the tourist mecca of Las Vegas and most hotels have checkouts at around 11 a.m., can anyone imagine why it might not be possible for the Nevadans with the most at stake in this election to participate in a caucus? In Maine, the Saturday caucuses were held at various times between 1 p.m. And 8 p.m., so again, what about those who have to work on a Saturday? Where are their voices? Why would any so-called “progressive” cheer on a system that effectively disenfranchises those who don’t work 9-5, Monday through Friday.
I have been advocating for years to stop having votes on Tuesday because it makes it harder for the people who most need the vote to actually do so. It would be much better if voting took place over an entire weekend, so as to give people more time and more opportunity to show up at the polls. There are laws in most states requiring employers to allow employees time to vote, but how many working poor, who need a much bigger voice in the process, can afford to take 2-3 hours off work to participate in caucuses, even if their employer will let them have the time to do so?
To make matters worse, the caucuses themselves don’t even determine the full delegate count. While you whine about super delegates, you should know that the caucuses only choose the delegates to county and/or state conventions and those delegates, in turn, decide who gets what delegates to the national convention. Yeah, that’s right; in addition to the impairments to participation already offered by the caucus process, caucus-goers only actually vote for the people who will choose who gets what number of delegates.
Compare all of that to a primary with an election process. Any Democrat can choose to vote at any time on the primary election day, their secret ballot is taken and counted the same as every other secret ballot and delegates are awarded on a proportional basis, usually by district or county, based on votes cast. Are their imperfections? Of course. As many have pointed out, Arizona is an example of the imperfection.
However, which is a worse problem for a democratic process, if we’re being realistic and honest? Not enough polling places in Maricopa County to accommodate Democratic voters, or holding Nevada caucuses at a time when a great many Democratic voters can’t possibly attend?
The answer is, they are both serious problems that have to be attended to, but more people are disenfranchised by caucuses than by primary elections, by far. You can make a case for them in sparsely populated states or states with almost no Democratic voters, like Idaho and Utah. But in states like Nevada, Colorado and Washington, among many others, they have outgrown their usefulness and it’s time they were done away with, once and for all. By the way, all three of those states used to have primaries, but did away with them to hold caucuses. If we really care about the sanctity of the democratic process, why would we allow that?