Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Case Against Caucuses

Counting continues following the Texas caucuses--which, to put it charitably, were a mess. One friend of Polprint reports that 1,000 people showed up at a church in Austin, when just 60 were expected. An Obama volunteer in San Antonio complained to Polprint of serious irregularities, such as voters being given incorrect information about where the caucus was held. Clinton supporters had plenty of grievances too, as noted in the Baltimore Sun. Some caucuses did not even begin until 9.30pm, more than two hours after the intended start time.

It is one thing for a small, homogenous and experienced state like Iowa to hold caucuses. It is quite another for a huge and diverse state that has never tried this before. (Caucuses have long been required by Texas's Democratic party, but normally they have been just a formality and nobody goes.) Plainly, reform is in order. Republicans, sensibly enough, determine their delegates based solely on the primary results, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

The debacle gives Polprint an excuse to mount her soapbox once again. There is no place for caucuses in modern society. (That includes Wyoming, whose Democrats are caucusing today.) Caucuses seem to have two principle characteristics:

a) They are confusing--witness Texas; and

b) They are exclusionary. Most ordinary people do not have two (at least!) spare hours to wait out a messy meeting. Emergency workers, overseas soldiers, and countless others are banished at a stroke. Maine does have a hybrid system, in which absentee ballots are allowed at the caucus; and Las Vegas allowed convenient caucuses on the Strip. But these are fringe improvements to a system that is past its time. And what about the awkward fact that at a caucus, everyone's preference will be known and gossiped about?

Caucus boosters try to justify their system by saying that it has two virtues. First, it is cheap. Reruning Michigan as a caucus could cost $10 million less than a primary, reports local TV station WSBT. Second, it is a party-building exercise. People who are dedicated enough to come to caucuses will also be recruited to go door-to-door on behalf of the party’s candidates for less glamorous offices, such as city council or school board. But to limit the selection of a presidential nominee to those likely to serve as party boosters is beyond absurd.

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