The Democratic National Committee is considering a long-awaited reform that would reduce the number of caucuses in the 2020 election, moving to state-run primaries instead, and will vote on it next month at a meeting in Chicago. This is a huge victory for voting rights and should be celebrated by all who care about a more open and transparent electoral process in this country.
The debate over caucuses vs. primaries has become a microcosm of the Clinton-Sanders struggle that fractured Democrats in 2016. During the DNC Unity Reform Commission’s meeting last December, Clinton supporter David Huynh proposed to strengthen the power of primaries over caucuses in states like Washington and Nebraska, which have both caucuses and primaries but only consider caucuses when allocating delegates. The Clinton supporters on the commission, like Emmy Ruiz and Yvette Lewis, backed Huynh’s amendment, but the Sanders supporters, including Nina Turner and Nomiki Konst, did not. Ultimately, Huyhn was outvoted, but the language of the Unity Reform Commission’s report, released after the December meeting, mandates to “expand the use of primaries wherever possible.” Under these guidelines, several caucus states, including Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, and Idaho, have made the switch to state-run primaries for 2020, and now, even Washington and Nebraska are considering eliminating their caucuses completely.
Sanders supporters defend caucuses because he won 12 out of the 14 caucus states, except for Iowa and Nevada, which both went for Clinton. But the majority of these states were heavily rural and white – Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota – and have an African-American population of under 10%. What’s more, they only garnered him 1.1 million votes – 13% the total number of votes Obama got across all those states in the 2012 election.
The reason these totals are so lopsided is because caucuses, a process dating back to before the Revolutionary War, discourage voter turnout. In order to participate, you have to go to your local gymnasium, cafeteria, or other public meeting space, stay there all day, and argue for your candidate in order to persuade others to join you. If this sounds ridiculous, remember that in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the “caucus race” scene is a direct attack on the futility of this process.
Relying on a system which dates back to a time when only white men could vote is bound to produce problems, and since caucuses already discourage voter turnout, they grow more discriminatory when you look at who’s excluded. African-Americans and other minorities are less likely to participate, but so are stay-at-home parents, people in the military, and people who have to work jobs (since you can’t vote absentee). They also discriminate against the physically handicapped, because caucuses often happen in spaces that don’t have wheelchair ramps or accessibility for the disabled.
The Nebraska and Washington split Huynh referred to sums up this problem in a nutshell. Nebraska had about 33,000 participants in its caucus; Washington state about 26,000, and Sanders won both. By contrast, the Nebraska and Washington primaries garnered 80,000 and 803,000 votes, respectively, and while Clinton won both of them, they were “beauty contests” that didn’t count towards her delegate share. It makes no sense to have the process with less turnout matter more than the one which encourages participation.
The Democratic Party is a big-tent coalition that makes room for all kinds, and caucuses do not reflect our broader mandate. If we believe in equal rights, we should believe in everybody’s equal right to cast a ballot, and fighting for primaries over caucuses are a strong sign for our party’s future.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.