OTHER VOICES: Caucuses do not do right by voters

September 8, 2018

Iowa’s presidential caucus is an infected wound, one that can’t be fixed with gauze and athletic tape.

But the Democratic National Committee recently told thousands of disenfranchised Iowans to suck it up and deal.

Yeah, presidential caucuses are quaint. They speak to nostalgia. And they’re a kitschy component of the electoral branding that maintains Iowa’s vaunted “first in the nation” status.

Reporters love showing up on some dark February night at a high school in Burlington or a VFW hall in Eldridge and writing about people spending hours standing in corners and horse-trading votes.

Caucuses make for good stories in a country that pines for the good ol days. They do not, however, do right by the voter. In fact, caucuses are a downright affront to democratic principles.

Caucuses disempower the rank-and-file and suppress turnout. They’re a mechanism of self-selection that elevates partisan insiders at the expense of regular voters.

The DNC’s rule changes were, in and of themselves, an admission that caucuses are broken and keep voters away, and Iowa’s Democratic brass are thumbing their noses at even those half-measures. That’s a real problem for a party that claims to stand for voter access. Among the changes were a mandate that caucus states create a yet-to-be-defined absentee ballot system. Another rule change would require state parties to report actual vote totals, instead of the opaque, intentionally confusing delegate counts now offered up.

Just 17 percent of registered voters in Iowa turned out to 2016′s Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses, say the data crunchers at Rasmusenn Reports. And that’s one of the better results among the eight states where caucuses still dominate the nomination process. Turnout hovered around 12 percent in most caucus states in 2016. Even the lamest primary turnouts broke into the 30s. Several primary states had turnout rates well north of 40 percent.

Iowa already has a mechanism for standard primary elections. The two major parties use primaries to select nominees for the vast majority of elected offices. About 5,000 more Iowa Democrats turned out for June’s gubernatorial primary than 2016′s presidential caucus. And, let’s be honest, a race for governor isn’t nearly as sexy as a presidential cycle, regardless of what the field looks like.

Caucuses are at night during the work week, a de-facto ban on second-shift laborers. They drag on for hours, meaning low-income parents have to hire a babysitter just to vote. And they require voters to sacrifice a certain anonymity that’s fundamental in most primary states.

In fact, low turnout is a fundamental feature of the anachronistic caucus system for selecting a party’s preferred candidate. Since almost no one shows up, it’s about a campaign’s ability to organize its base and turn it out to specific, key locations.

How cynical.

Iowa’s presidential caucus is about branding. It mobilizes partisans and silences the rank-and-file. The price tag is too high, no matter how ingrained caucuses are to Iowa’s carefully crafted identity.

Caucuses are an affront to the democratic process, which purposefully disenfranchise thousands of Iowans.

And it’s those Iowans who are left to suffer the consequences when, as in 2016, the two major parties force only unacceptable choices down their throats.

Update hourly