The confusion and disenfranchisement of caucuses
There’s not enough space in one column to pick apart the various issues with America’s system for presidential elections. From the expectation that candidates will campaign for more than a year to the inexplicable staying power of the outdated electoral college, Americans have a right to be angry about the way we choose our presidents.
But one particularly relevant democratic failure of the election process in Colorado and 12 other states (and three territories) is the caucus.
Having grown up and lived in states which participate in primaries, it comes as a shock that I’m expected to attend a town meeting at a specific time on a specific day in order for my voice to be heard in this important part of the election process.
It comes as a shock that I’m to debate with my neighbors and raise my hand at the end of the night, revealing my vote to everyone there.
It comes as a shock that, although Colorado employs mail-in ballots and polling stations for various other elections, choosing a presidential candidate for your party takes a considerable amount of time and effort — so considerable that the vast majority registered voters (some estimates say 90 percent) will not participate at all.
But am I just shocked over this because it’s a process I’m not used to? I wondered if states that use caucuses have populations that genuinely love that process and don’t want a primary. Maybe Coloradans believe it’s better that only those truly dedicated to their candidates participate. After all, if you’re not willing to take the time to join in on this process, maybe you don’t deserve to have a voice.
I’ll admit I did not perform a statistically sound survey to answer that question, but I did ask a variety of friends who’ve lived in Colorado through multiple caucuses. And what I heard was either indifference (one friend is a registered independent who said the only method that seems ideal to him is an open primary) or agreement with me that caucuses are not good ways to pick the delegates who cast their votes for our candidates.
I am of the philosophy that voting should always be as easy as it possibly can be. We work, we pay our taxes, and in exchange for that, we should all have a voice — or at least have processes that are as conducive as possible to everyone having a voice.
But caucuses are difficult. I personally know a handful of people who have valid obligations at the time of their local caucus which are going to keep them from participating.
In fact, actual voters are not representative of registered voters. Actual voters — those who show up to caucuses — much more often have higher income and higher levels of education than registered voters. They are also disproportionately male, older and white compared to demographics of registered voters.
What this seems to mean is that the results of caucuses would not be the same as the results of primaries, which have higher participation rates among registered voters. Right?
Well, sort of. In a 2010 Fordham University study called “Are Caucuses Bad for Democracy,” researchers concluded that the fear that caucus results are extremely unrepresentative of the general voting public is exaggerated. They did find that “replacing caucuses with primaries may result in some marginal improvements in terms of demographic and attitudinal representation,” but overall, caucuses are doing a pretty OK job.
That’s reassuring, but it’s also not entirely the point. I know people who are desperately passionate about a certain candidate but whose other obligations are keeping them from caucusing. And they’re upset about it. I’m upset about it. I’m upset that simply having a voice in the supposedly democratic process of choosing my next president is going to become a burden on me when we have the means to make it extremely easy.
It’s not all about the end result. Less than 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have had the right to vote at all. I don’t take my participation in government lightly. And whether or not it makes a material difference in which candidate is chosen, primaries allow for more people — and more different kinds of people — to have a voice.
I can’t think of any reason for keeping the caucus system that’s more important than that.
Jessica Cabe is the former arts and entertainment editor for the Post Independent. She is beginning a regular column that subsequently will appear on the third Thursday of each month.
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