Caucus Chaos

System fails as instrument of democracy

Graham Hill, Editor-in-Chief

Summer Purks

As that strange and delightful quadrennial season known as the primaries falls on America, the bizarre black sheep of the herd has again reared its ugly head and entered national discourse. This archaic and inane intruder on modern democracy is none other than the caucus.  

Primaries and caucuses are the two means by which political parties in the United States select their nominees. Primaries are the straightforward, no-nonsense route to take. It functions the same as an election: a voter shows up at a polling station, enters a nice little booth, casts their ballot and then moves on with their day. Simple, easy and, most importantly, representative of the actual support a candidate has. 

With the caucus, things are much more difficult. Voters show up at designated buildings and physically move to a certain area in the room to express their preference. Specifics often depend on the rules of the state party, but, in general, there is time for debate and discussion between the supporters of different candidates. During this time, attendees are free to move to another candidate’s spot if they change their mind. 

After a designated amount of time, officials running the caucus tally up the number of supporters each candidate has. At this stage, the viability of candidates is determined. In most cases, any candidate who received below 15% of support is removed from consideration and their former supporters now must either align themselves with a remaining candidate or leave.  

More debate follows, final tallies are taken and then everyone goes home.  

Simply put, caucuses are not effective at gauging candidate’s supports. There are many flaws with the concept itself. For instance, an attendee is required to stay for the entirety if the caucus if they want their vote to be counted for the final tally. Many may not have the time to do so, or even simply the patience to spend several hours in a crowded room talking politics.  

Another obvious flaw is the fact that voting is public. To express your political opinion, you must stand up in front of your neighbors and coworkers and display your allegiance. People may understandably be concerned about what others may think of them and their views or just feel uncomfortable with politics in such a public way.  

And beyond all of that, there is the simple fact that caucuses are unwieldy, difficult to organize and can confound and frustrate the nation. For evidence, merely look to the Iowa Democratic caucus earlier this year.  

Without fully falling down the rabbit hole, the Iowa caucus was plagued by difficulties relating to an app that officials used to send vote totals to be collected. This caused the results of the caucus to be unavailable for over 24 hours after it had finished while the state party tried to check their records and determine correct vote totals. This disaster brought bipartisan criticism to it organizers, and the hectic nature of the caucus cast some doubt on its results. 

If any good news came out of Iowa, it is that the chaos of its caucus revealed some flaws in the system and also ignited discussion about the caucuses and how backwards the entire practice seems in a 21st century democracy. With any luck, both parties will move away from this Byzantine relic of days gone by, and move towards primaries, or other superior and modern techniques.