American democracy has a unique and commendable feature— the primary system. Anyone can, with the power of ideas, the strength of beliefs, and support of rank and file voters represent the party in an election at both federal and state levels. Contrast that with other democracies such as in India where the party bosses choose the nominees for their party. The primary system shifts that power of selecting the nominees to the actual voters.
There is one part of the primary system that I believe is outdated and deserves to be repealed—the practice of some states to have caucuses. A caucus is simply a meeting, often held in a church or a school ,where the voters in attendance gather in the room, to advocate for the candidate and to “court” those in the undecided group. The winner is the one with the largest group of supporters. The entire proceeding often takes several hours. The problem with caucuses is that it attracts only a small sliver of voters who can devote the time for this exercise and the typical voter with a job or family demands is often not able to participate and the results are not representative of the electorate.
Take the example of the recent GOP presidential primary caucus in Kansas—a mere 29,857 voters participated while the total registered Republican voters in Kansas is more than 735,000! The state of Maine switched this year to a caucus—while more than 64,000 Democrats and 96,000 Republicans voted in their 2000 primary, a little over 5000 voters gathered for the caucus this year!
Bi-partisan caucuses exert enormous impact on the choice of a nominee especially in the Presidential election, disproportionate to the small percentage of voters who do participate in them. In 2008, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination with caucus wins making the difference despite Hillary Clinton winning the plurality of actual votes cast in primary elections. The 2012 GOP primary is also shaping up to be a very close race with perhaps the caucus states determining the nominee.
A better way, as is the practice in California, is to have direct primary elections where the voters come in for a quick drop of the ballot in the box or mail their absentee ballots ahead of time. In the 2008 Democratic primary, more than 5 million California voters participated making the result much more representative of the state’s electorate.
Democracy is strengthened by empowering as many voters to be franchised to cast their vote—the antiquated caucus system does just the opposite—by allowing a small fringe on both the left and the right to have a disproportionate influence in determining the nominee in both parties.
Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
Yes, caucuses are necessary and lead to an informed electorate
In 2008, Michael Steele, the Republican National Convention chair at the time, successfully lobbied for and instituted a Proportional delegate distribution for all Republican primaries. Prior to this the Republican primaries were winner-take-all contests and were decided by early wins by one of the candidates. This, and not the caucus system, is primarily responsible for the longevity and closeness of the GOP presidential race. Due to this skewed delegate apportionment policy, Michigan was won by Mitt Romney. Despite being a primary election state, Michigan awarded an equal number of delegates to both Santorum and Romney. Similarly, in Kansas, Ohio and Alabama.
Caucuses do tend to be sparsely attended. Yet we accept these as the normal functioning of local governments and schools and we live by the consequences.
While it is important for democracy to have maximum voter participation it is also critical and perhaps even more important to have an informed electorate. A caucus system promotes intense discussion of candidates, their positions on issues and their politics. This is not unlike Parent Teachers Assciation meetings at schools or meetings held at city and county levels. The outcome of these activities have a significant influence on our lives. Yes, they do tend to involve detailed discussions of the issues and are time consuming, but this is a hallmark of informed decision making.
Examples abound where the will of a few have thwarted the opinion of the many but the caucus sytem is not one of them. One contemporary example is the federal tax policy. A vast majority of Americans favor a return to higher income tax brackets for the wealthy. However, tax policy has been held hostage to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. This is a pledge that was created by Americans for Tax Reform, a think tank organization headed by Grover Norquist. He has 276 members of congress—almost all Republicans—who have signed this pledge. Pledgees are forbidden to sign any legislation that raises taxes or removes subsidies no matter how unpopular or unjustified the subsidy or how popular the tax. As a result there have been no federal income tax increases since 1993 in spite of the U.S. military being involved in two major wars and several smaller conflicts since.
There are elements of the caucus system that could indeed strengthen the electorate’s understanding of the issues and the candidates. To the extent that participation is limited, advances in communication and media technologies can be leveraged to provide a wider reach. There are dysfunctional aspects of this democracy but the caucus system is certainly not one of them.
Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.