Sunday, February 10, 2008

Caucus thoughts

My opinion of the caucus process as a way of selecting a nominee for the presidency (or anything else) is about the same as it is of the Electoral College: if this is such a good idea, why does no one else use it?

Aside from the presidency of the United States, there is no political office in the known universe for which a goofy system like the Electoral College is employed. So when its defenders speak up, let them answer that question: why does no one and nothing else use it?

As to caucuses: well, we elect the president, don't we? We don't caucus to decide who will be president of the United States. Why, then, should we caucus to decide who will run for president?

The caucus system, which, thank heaven, only a minority of states use, is a stupid idea made up by stupid people trying to solve non-problems. Let's go to basics--and the most basic principle is that in a free society, no one's vote is supposed to carry more weight than anyone else's: one person, one vote. It's the law of the land and the obvious moral choice, too.

Primary contests obviously satisfy that requirement, at least within a state (and there's nothing we can do, right now, about the abominable Electoral College). Anyone who wants to vote can, and his or her vote counts just as much as any other voter's. In a caucus, that is very far from the case.

To begin with, merely getting to vote is not easy: there are not an awful lot of people who really want to put in a mostly boring and tedious hour or two (or three or more) fussing and feuding with their neighbors and filling out paper after paper just to get their choice of candidate registered.

Next, owing to the Byzantine schemes the parties have put in effect, for correspondingly Byzantine reasons, a given voter's vote can mean vastly more or less than some other voter's vote. And the difference is not even under anyone's control--at the area caucus I coordinated, one functional illiterate determined two next-level delegates simply because no one else from his precinct cared to fight the icy roads that afternoon. Total attendance at caucuses in any state will ineluctably be far less than voter turnout for an election, even a primary election.

(We can wait and see how many Washington State Democrats end up voting in the state's primary as compared to the number who showed up for caucuses even though the primary is absolutely meaningless because it doesn't control even a single delegate; I'll bet the empty primary draws more voters by far than showed up for the caucuses.)
Washington State's own law creating the primaries--which came though an initiative process--reads in part:
The…presidential nominating caucus system in Washington State is unnecessarily restrictive of voter participation in that it discriminates against the elderly, the infirm, women, the disabled, evening workers, and others who are unable to attend caucuses and therefore unable to fully participate in this most important quadrennial event that occurs in our democratic system of government.
That, I think, covers it tolerably well. But, despite the many, obvious, and severe drawbacks of the caucus system, both parties rely on it, the Democratic exclusively. That is toxic to democracy.

The parties try to gloss over all this. Go to the Washington State Democratic Party web site and try to see how many people participated; you'll get delegate counts and percentages, but not voter counts. My guesstimate is that in our county, perhaps 5% of the Democratic electorate participated.

A SurveyUSA poll taken shortly before the Washington caucuses showed that 33% of polled registered voters said they would attend their precinct causus, while 85% said they would vote in the primary. And that is probably optimistic, in that 1) many who said they would attend, when it came time to step out into the slush and ice, almost surely did not do so; and 2) the primaries mean nothing--literally on the Democratic side and effectively so (owing to McCain's unstoppability) on the Republican side. So the polled 5:2 dominance of primary over caucus turnout, gross as it is, doesn't tell the whole story.

Nor is this like voting itself used to be before everyone went wild for mail-in voting, where critics could say "if you can't make the minimal effort to go vote, you have no right to complain about the results", because the effort involved in in-person voting is vastly less than the effort involved in attending a caucus.

The problem with all this caucus foofaraw is not merely that many voters are effectively disenfranchised, just as the law's text notes, but that the disenfranchisement is selective: the candidate delegate-vote allocation is not representative of the preferences of the electorate. I happen to think that Hillary Clinton would make an equally effective candidate and a much better president that Barack Obama, but my opinion is not the issue: what is the issue is that I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the Obama rout in the caucuses is far from reflective of the results a primary would have turned in (and may yet turn in, though it will be tainted by its irrelevance).

The upshot is that candidates in both parties are getting a lot of delegates--all those picked through caucus methods--that reflect the activism and energy of those candidates' supporters, not their actual numbers. That's a pretty awful way to select a candidate.

Looking in particular at the Democratic race, I come back to that economic divide: Democratic voters earning uder $50,000 a year--which is still well above the median national income--go very heavily for Clinton; in general, the higher the income level or educational level, the more the trend to Obama. Say what you want about whatever you think that shows about the candidates' qualities (and I think it shows that the head-in-the-clouds Kumbaya crowd is what makes up Obama's support), the one thing it shows is that Clinton's appeal is necessarily much larger than Obama's. When the general election rolls around, there aren't going to be caucuses in which a handful of stridently over-optimistic college kids can turn the day for their hero: the Democrat is going to have to win with the majority of the voters, and the blue-collar electorate, which is the majority of American households and voters, has shown a oreference for Clinton.

No wonder Democrats are famed for snatching defaet from the jaws of victory.

In any event, sometime between now and the next election cycle, we need, urgently, to drop the caucus system altogether in every state in which it is now used, and let the people of this nation vote their choices for candidates.

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