Kill the caucuses

I was chatting with a Bernie Sanders supporter recently, and (of course) the subject of superdelegates came up. He, of course, sees them as anti-democratic, a tool for the party hierarchy to exert a measure of control.

I see them as a reasonable way for the party to give weight to its most successful and most stalwart figures, but I have no problem with the Vermont Compromise: allow superdelegates if the party wants ‘em, but tie their first-ballot votes to the result of their state’s primary or caucus.

We also discussed primaries, open vs. closed. He favors open primaries, as the most (small-d) democratic way to choose a candidate.

This is all in accord with the general proposition that more voter participation is better than less. So, fine.

But then we get to caucuses. The Sanders supporter hadn’t given them much thought, but felt that there was a place for them because they reflect the level of “passion” behind a candidate.

This isn’t just one person’s view. Generally, the Sanders camp seems unconcerned with the potential unfairness of caucuses. When, in fact, a caucus is one of the best voter-suppression tools around.

I say, if you want to make the political process as inclusive as possible, then you have to kill the caucuses. Each state gets an open primary, and each state’s delegation will reflect the primary results in its first-ballot voting.

If the Sanders camp wants to open the process except for caucuses, I say they are being hypocritical: supporting reform only when it suits their guy, but not when it doesn’t.

To prove my point, let’s look at Washington, which held both a caucus and a primary. The delegates were awarded at the March 26 caucus; yesterday’s primary was a beauty contest.

In the caucus, Sanders scored an impressive victory, getting 76 percent support to Clinton’s 24. In the primary, Clinton won 54 percent to Sanders’ 46.

Now let’s look at the total votes cast.

In the caucus, Sanders and Clinton combined for 26,271 roughly 230,000* votes.

In the primary, they combined for 661,403.

Now, you tell me how the caucus was more democratic, more inclusive, than the primary.

*Note: I took the 26,271 from the Washington Democratic Party website. However, it was listing total delegates chosen for the next step in the process, not total votes. There were, in fact, approximately 230,000 votes cast on Caucus Day. My point still remains; turnouts are dramatically lower in caucuses than in primaries.

There was one other state that held both a binding caucus and a nonbinding primary: Nebraska. The results were much the same. Sanders won the caucus; Clinton prevailed in the primary, which attracted far more voters even though nothing was at stake.

There’s an additional irony here. As Seattle Times political columnist Danny Westneat observes, caucuses are better than primaries for the institutional party — the very thing Bernie rails against.

The party likes it because people have to give their email addresses and phone numbers. This contributes to “party-building,” meaning the recruitment of volunteers and the creation of fundraising lists. What it does not contribute to is equity…

Two political scientists from Brigham Young University studied these events, resulting in a paper called “Who Caucuses?” Mostly it’s “the wealthy, educated, white and interested.” This fits with The Seattle Times portrait of one caucus in the city’s most nonwhite neighborhood: “While the caucus was located in the racially diverse but gentrifying Rainier Valley, most of those who turned out were white.”

When you put it that way, caucuses look like something the Republicans would dream up to suppress turnout among “undesirable” voting blocs. It’s not something that members of Bernie’s political revolution should be hanging their hats on.

I’m fine with open primaries and superdelegates bound on the first ballot. But for consistency’s sake, we should also Kill The Caucuses.

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