Why Do We Still Have Caucuses?

Regular voters still don't know how they work.

There was a fair amount of debate last week in journalistic circles near and far over whether reporters should be permitted by their bosses to participate in presidential caucuses. On the one hand, discouraging journalists from participating in caucuses can be construed as stripping them of their fundamental right to vote. On the other hand, caucuses are, in their very nature, partisan functions, and choosing which one to participate in would betray a reporter's political stripes, thus stripping away the veil of objectivity. Both sides of this argument have considerable merit. But the fact that the argument even exists points to a more compelling question: Why do we still have caucuses in the first place? Is there any American practice that's more antiquated and undemocratic? While the excitement associated with this year's wide-open race has bolstered caucus participation in states like Iowa and Nevada, turnouts would doubtless have been higher had those states simply held primaries. What's more, caucuses afford each party the opportunity to hijack the candidate selection process from regular voters, most of whom couldn't tell you (a) how a caucus works, or (b) where they're supposed to participate in one. Still, State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz vehemently defends the practice. "The process by which we choose our nominees for president in this country is not a primary," he explains. "What we have is a series of contests held over a couple months. It's a little random, but we think it gives a good test to these candidates. We have always used caucuses in Washington because we believe they test the ability of candidates to organize on a grassroots level, whereas primaries tend to test political advertising." Meanwhile, state Republicans have chosen to split the difference, plucking half their delegates from Feb. 9 caucuses and half from the Feb. 19 primary (for the Dems, the latter is merely a multimillion-dollar beauty contest). "Some people can't make it to caucuses because they're ill or in the military, so we draw delegates from both," says State Republican Chair Luke Esser. "The Democratic Party has never done that." (Democrats allow folks physically unable to attend a caucus to vote via surrogate affidavit form, a loophole also extended to people with religious prohibitions on Saturday activities.) "We believe [caucuses are] more participatory than vote by mail," counters Pelz. Maybe so, but on balance, the caucus remains more party-building apparatus than user-friendly tool of democracy, and should be relegated to history textbooks as soon as possible.

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