You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Yes, Caucuses Are Unfair. No, We Shouldn’t Mind.

Regardless of whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum comes out ahead in Ohio later today, Super Tuesday already promises to make at least one growing segment of America’s political class gleeful: caucus skeptics. Of the ten events scheduled for today, only those in North Dakota, Idaho, and Alaska will tally votes by means of a caucus rather than a primary election, and most attention will be elsewhere. But, even if it’s temporarily pacified, the anti-caucus sentiment that has been burgeoning in the wake of the various vote-counting follies in Iowa, Nevada, and Maine is sure to crop up again. Election law expert Rick Hasen has even suggested ending caucuses entirely: Congress should act to eliminate them, Hasen argues, and require each state to hold a presidential primary to select its delegates to the national convention.

But Hasen’s article is a prime example of how anti-caucus animus has gone way too far. I disagree with him on two counts. First, he exaggerates the injustices that caucuses perpetrate. Second, he mistakenly believes the federal government is in a position to make the procedures of our political parties fairer than they currently are. In most cases, the less regulation of the parties, the better.

I’ll start by admitting that caucuses can be annoying. They’ve been especially so this year, as the press and the candidates alike have been forced to wait for slow vote tallies out of several caucuses. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the delays have only been in tallying non-binding straw votes. In most of the Republican contests, the actual delegate selection process is completely separate from that vote. After the straw vote is taken, those who attend these precinct-level meetings then select representatives to attend the next stage of the process, and the final delegates are selected at Congressional district level caucuses or state conventions. So far, we’ve heard of no irregularities in that process.  And the annoyance that the press has experienced shouldn’t be a dispositive factor anyway, it seems to me: Election law shouldn’t be dictated by the dwindling patience of the media in an era of 24-hour news cycles. 

Hasen’s case, however, is more subtle. He suggests that caucuses should be eliminated for the sake of voters: His premise is that they are the ones hurt by these procedures, concluding that “there’s no reason to burden voters who want to help choose a presidential nominee with the extra demands of a caucus.”

This concern is misplaced. Individual voters don’t have the same sort of rights in nominations that they have in general elections. In general elections, all citizens should have equal voice because they have equal “ownership” of the polity. So it makes sense to keep the burdens of and barriers to voting low. (There’s a good argument to be made that the barriers should be much lower than they currently are in the United States.)

But party nominations are different. They are how parties govern themselves, and the parties should be trusted to know what works best for themselves. Hasen writes, for example, that caucuses are poor organizational tools for the parties. That may be true—but shouldn’t it be up to the party to decide? It should be up to the parties to decide whether they would prefer a relatively high-turnout delegate selection scheme that would put more influence with mass electorates or a system that empowers smaller, more dedicated groups of party activists. The parties are also best positioned to figure out which influences they prefer (including second-order influences; mass electorates give more power to the media, which parties might not like). More to the point, it’s the parties who have everything at stake here, so they should be the ones to choose.

Beyond the question of whether parties or government should choose how the parties should govern themselves, I think that there’s an additional problem if Congress steps in. Hasen goes beyond the caucus/primary question to suggest that Congress should intervene generally by imposing a calendar on the parties for their delegate selection events. I’d hate to see that happen, for reasons that have to do with the basic structure of the United States’ Constitutional government.

One of the well-known drawbacks of the Constitutional system is the distorted apportionment of the Senate, with sparsely populated Wyoming and Rhode Island having the same two Senators as California and Texas. There’s really no excuse or good democratic justification for that. Somewhat ameliorating it, however, is that other portions of the government contain their own, often different biases. For example, members from single-party districts tend to stay in the House forever and build up seniority and thus more disproportional influence in Congress. The electoral college introduces its own set of biases to the presidency, generally in favor of large and close states. So that’s why I don’t mind so much if the presidential nomination process has biases—as it clearly does—in favor of some states and against others—and why I don’t want Congress to decide the method of nomination. After all, regardless of what ideas neutral observers can draw up to ensure fairness, Congress is likely to reinforce its own biases when it gets involved.

Underlying all of this that the nomination process is only partially driven by the state-by-state sequential primaries and caucuses. There’s also another track, begun early during the “invisible primary” of endorsements and fundraising before the primaries get started and continuing all the way until the nominee is finally chosen, in which party actors from the entire nation choose which candidate to support and supply the resources, which then translate into primary or caucus votes. In other words, if everything rested on the proper counting of votes in Iowa, Maine, and Nevada, then perhaps Hasen would have a stronger case. If, however, the caucus results are only a way of ratifying what the thousands of members of the party network have already decided, then exactly how delegates are selected is not really all that important. The distinction between those who can just drop in at their polling place and vote and those who have to spend a couple of hours at a caucus looks a lot less significant if the real key to having an important voice in the nomination is spending hours building up strong ties within the party—or, for that matter, spending lots of money to do the same.

It’s those party actors, from elected officials down to long-time activists, who should, and do, have influence within the nomination process. And if they believe they can do it best through the current system, then there’s no reason for us on the outside to intervene. Indeed, our outrage at the injustices of the primary process—including caucuses—should be tempered by the fact that it’s never entirely been about fairness to begin with.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics