In two weeks, Iowa voters will attend a caucus. They will each vote for their favorite nominee, and the winner will go on to represent their party.
Wait. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
What exactly is a caucus? Basically, it’s when a group of voters gather together to discuss who they want to nominate. Then they vote, either through a ballot, by raising their hands, moving to whichever part of the room denotes their preferred candidate, or otherwise publicly voting. In a primary system, on the other hand, voters do not discuss their vote with anyone. Instead, they vote secretly, either by entering a small, private space or mailing in their ballot.
In earlier years, caucuses made sense. Counting ballots by hand was tedious and time-consuming. It was easier to just eyeball which side of the room had more people in it. Today, however, technological advances have made ballot-counting much easier. As primaries grow more convenient for those administering the election, it is time that parties recognize that primaries are also much more convenient for voters.
First, caucuses take time. Instead of just going in and voting (or mailing in their ballots), people have to spend what may take several hours discussing the candidates. This limits attendance from people who don’t have enough job security to take time off work. These people tend to have lower-paying jobs, meaning that richer citizens are overrepresented in caucus results.
Requiring that voters show up in person also renders caucuses inaccessible to military members who are on duty, parents who have to care for their children, English language learners, disabled people, and anyone who just can’t go.
Furthermore, some caucuses do provide people with the right to vote using a secret ballot, but others require people to publicly state which candidate they support. This could influence voters to succumb to pressure from their families or friends and vote for a candidate they don’t really want.
These factors combine to significantly discourage potential voters from voting. Case in point: both parties in Washington are required by law to hold primaries, but the Democratic Party continues to hold a caucus, completely ignoring the results of the primary when choosing delegates. Despite this, only 5.3% of voters attended the 2008 Democratic caucus, while 15% attended the primary.
Supporters of caucuses often argue that because caucuses are so inconvenient, only informed voters who care enough to put up with it will vote. However, the people who vote in caucuses may just be more extreme, or have more time on their hands. Besides, democracy is meant to allow everyone equal participation in government, not to entrust the rule of the people to a small group that thinks they know best.
Caucus proponents also argue that caucuses give people time to discuss and deliberate their options before making a decision. However, with the constant news coverage the election has received since early 2015, most people have deliberated their options enough before the voting process actually begins. It’s better to trust voters than to force them to spend several more hours debating something they’ve already spent enough time thinking through.
Caucuses are outdated and inaccessible, and help disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t have the time, transportation, and willingness to travel and spend several hours there. True democracy gives everyone the opportunity to participate. Universally abolishing the caucus in favor of a primary system will allow that to happen.