Block the caucus

It’s easy when we have a presidential race as exciting as this one to get caught up in the minutiae of the campaign: How are delegate totals shaping up? Why can’t Romney win in the South? Did Mike Gravel even vote for Mike Gravel? But we also need to take a step back and think about the basic process we are using to channel this enthusiasm. Easy voting access is a basic democratic ideal, and Minnesota will stay on the wrong side of basic democracy until we finally do away with the suppressive caucus system. The caucus serves no discernable purpose as a system for choosing presidential nominees. No one benefits: not the parties, not the candidates and not the voters. It’s unfortunate that we had to caucus in 2008 – at least we can make that caucus our last.

Caucuses have been causing problems since this primary season began. In Iowa, The American Prospect reported cases where voters with poor command of the English language struggled to navigate the confusing caucus system. And in Nevada, former president Bill Clinton claimed that he witnessed active voter suppression, as casino bosses threatened workers who were planning to caucus for Hillary Clinton. These problems are, of course, largely because of the extremely public nature of the caucuses – something we in Minnesota at least manage to avoid. Unlike Iowa, we don’t vote by a silly show-of-hands system; thankfully, we use paper ballots. But even then, the caucus itself, and its limited window of time for voting, render the process suppressive and undemocratic.

Two hundred people came to caucus for the DFL in the basement of Willey Hall on Tuesday night. The line slowly crept along as voters waited to register and make their choice for the Democratic nominee. Once the vote was cast, the caucus worker would ask the voter “Are you going to hang around?” The voter has the option to leave now or head into the auditorium for the rest of the caucus. That’s the party meeting, where voters debate resolutions, choose local delegates, and wallow in the mechanics of party politics. Out of those 200 voters who came out that night, barely forty stayed for the meeting. And that’s completely fine, of course. But it begs the questions: If the presidential ballot and the party meeting are already so differentiated, then why link them at all?

The vast majority of voters just want to cast their ballot and get on with their lives. It takes a serious party believer to spend two hours in an auditorium choosing delegates to a slightly larger party meeting coming up a few weeks later. But with the caucus system, your average voter who just wants to cast a ballot has to make sure they show up during a small and specific time frame, or they miss out completely. (On Tuesday, the voting was open from 6:30-8:00 p.m.) If so many of the voters are not interested in hanging around for a few extra hours, then there is no reason to make them vote at such a specific time. We could just as easily hold a normal, all-day primary election, giving people plenty of time to vote. If you have to work late, or have a Tuesday night class, or can’t find a babysitter, then the caucus system shuts you out. Minnesotans take pride in traditionally high voter turnout, and it’s time to extend that turnout to the primary season.

The caucus meeting does serve important organizational purposes for the parties. Debating platform positions, electing leaders and fundraising are important for any political party. The parties, then, can still hold those meetings in the evening. We just do not have to tie the candidate selection process in as well. The voters who currently stay to attend the meeting are clearly the most dedicated party members – they will show up whenever and wherever the meeting is held. The adoption of an all-day primary vote would only attract more voters while not doing any damage to the parties themselves. In fact, the parties have a vested interest in making their nominating process as open and accessible as possible. November elections often come down to who was better able to motivate and excite voters. More people helping to choose candidates will lead to more people feeling satisfied with their options come November. Moreover, voters who feel like they are an active participant in the process are more likely to donate time or money. It’s much more satisfying to contribute to a movement that feels inclusive. The parties should be jumping at the chance to enact an all-day primary vote, simply out of self-interest.

The candidates themselves have the same incentives as do the parties. We saw firsthand on this campus what a massive get-out-the-vote effort looks like (and we have an abundant supply of Obama stickers to show for it). Early in the process, candidates want to excite and attract voters who will stick with them for the long haul to the general election. We hear plenty about inclusive movements, and actually making it easier to vote will do more to attract voters and will a hundred Target Center speeches.

Most importantly, we the voters would of course benefit from a more open primary system. Our vote is our most basic, and still most effective, civic weapon. Every time fellow citizens are denied their votes because they can’t make it to their caucuses on time, our own votes are cheapened. The nomination process is a key part of our democratic system: Ralph Nader aside, the lack of a major nomination kills campaigns. If we want the whole system to represent the people as much as possible, we need to let every interested voter get to their primary – not shut them out because they showed up at 8:05.

We pride ourselves on free and honest elections (and apparently consider them a valuable export) yet we continue to accept our mangled and twisted caucus process. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve heard so much about change over the past few months, and we’ve argued about who best can provide that change. This is one reform that shouldn’t be so hard. Before we waste another election cycle on a pointless caucus, let’s just fix the process. Once we repair the basic machinery of our democracy, we will be better positioned to deal with the rest of our problems.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]