Thoughts on Caucus System Reform

Curt Bentley has an excellent post in which he discusses the issue of reforming the caucus system. I really appreciate the methodical approach he has taken to examine the issue. I completely agree with each of his guiding principles and while I suspect I am more comfortable with the caucus system in its current form than he seems to be, I also want to see it strengthened through some reforms that will make it better at promoting voter participation and issue-centric campaigns. I agree with his assessment of what the caucus system does well and with his conclusion that dumping the caucus system entirely is not the way to go. As for his assessment of what the caucus system doesn’t do well, I have some thoughts I’d like to share and I sincerely hope that Curt and others will share their feedback on those thoughts.

Curt argues that the caucus system marginalizes non-delegate voters but his argument seems unsubstantiated. If the average voter is limited to voting once every two years on caucus night that is not simply because of the caucus system – it is largely because voters have chosen that for themselves. I have been both a delegate and an unsuccessful candidate to be a delegate. I have found that while my direct influence is less as a non-delegate I still have the ability to have influence within the system so long as I am willing to engage directly with office holders and office seekers (the way delegates do), engage with delegates, and engage with other voters within my precinct.

Engaging directly with delegates and office holder/seekers allows me to make my opinions heard and considered even if I am not a delegate. My opinions get less weight but they understand me and I understand them better than if I sit back and leave all the work to the delegates after caucus night. Engaging with other voters in my precinct outside of caucus night allows me the opportunity to share my opinions and make both me and others better informed on the issues before caucus night arrives. Also, as a delegate I was always interested in getting feedback and providing information to the other voters in my precinct. Sadly, I discovered that only a small percent of the voters had any interest in staying engaged after the caucus night.

Personally I think all delegates should embrace the opportunity to gather and disseminate information among the voters in their precinct – that would go a long way to increase voter engagement outside of caucus night. Voters who discuss issues on a regular basis outside of caucus night are going to be less likely to be swayed by a political machine, whether it’s an incumbent or a challenger, because they will have already considered issues in advance rather than simply accepting the first argument they hear on the subject which will usually be delivered by the first machine to get running in the campaign cycle.

Curt’s argument that the caucus system defines constituencies in ways inconsistent with political responsibility rings hollow for me. In any system, it is the people who engage that become the constituency of the candidates. The delegates get a vote in convention but non-delegates who are engaged can influence the votes of delegates and can influence the candidates’ positions as well. In a primary the voters at large are still not the constituency of the candidate. In a primary their constituency becomes those people who are willing and able to finance their campaigns – which is also inconsistent with political responsibility.

On the other hand, Curt’s argument that the caucus system is too focused on avoiding a primary seems true to me. I think caucuses are a good tool – especially if they are part of an overall political system that is healthy with regard to voter engagement – but if they are designed simply to minimize the need for primaries then that becomes a problem. While his argument speaks to me, I don’t think that simply modifying the threshold to avoid a primary actually addresses the underlying issue. I personally suspect that the real reason that all those reforms were rejected out of hand by the delegates at the GOP convention was because they recognized that changing the threshold would not address the actual weaknesses of the system.

The desire Curt expressed to see permanent efforts to encourage participation on caucus night seems more tuned to the actual problem as does his desire to have the parties encourage delegates to communicate with their neighbors. I believe that one way to encourage participation in caucus night would be to ensure that all the attendees at caucus night can feel that they have someone who can represent their viewpoint at the convention. That could be done by weighting delegate votes at the convention based on the support they received on caucus night rather than simply limiting the number of people who can be delegates at the convention.

I don’t believe that supplying contact information for their neighbors to the delegates is helpful but encouraging and expecting delegates to undertake their responsibilities transparently by communicating publicly about the work they are doing and the issues they are weighing would be very helpful. What we need is to foster a culture within the state that values discussion of political topics among regular people so that when the time comes to vote, whether it be for a candidate, a delegate, or a referendum, the voters are informed about the issues, know their own positions, and have some appreciation for opposing viewpoints.

Appreciation for opposing viewpoints is important because it reduces the polarization and rancor that discourage people from becoming involved in politics. That appreciation is fostered by continued discussion between people with differing perspectives It is not more or less likely based on whether we have a caucus system or a direct primary system. It’s likelihood is based on how long people remain engaged in the process. An ideal process would keep voters engaged long enough for the majority of voters to reach an informed consensus on the candidates or issues being voted on – whether that consensus is reached at the convention, in the primary, or in a general election. For that reason I think the idea of allowing open primaries where the top two candidates appear on the general election ballot regardless of party affiliation deserves consideration. While Fred Cox see this as messing up the primary system, I consider it reasonable to let general election voters choose between two republican candidates if the democratic candidate can’t garner as much support as either of the top two republican candidates.

There are two significant issues I see with that approach that deserve consideration. First, it interferes with the ability to vote a straight party ticket in the general election. Personally, I think the option to simply select a party and skip the opportunity to cast a vote for each individual candidate is unhelpful at best and detrimental to voter engagement at worst. Second, third party candidates get left out somewhere. Considering how many third party candidates get elected here (none) I’m not too worried about that but in fairness it should be addressed. I would suggest that the major parties must participate in the open primary so long as either of them has more than one candidate come out of their convention for each specific office. Third parties would only be required to participate in the open primary if they had more than one candidate to put on the ballot for an office. Perhaps the rule could be generalized so that any party which was associated with a current elected official would be required to participate in the open primary if any of those parties produced more than one candidate for any office (after their party convention). Those parties which had no elected officials would be designated minor parties and could skip the open primary so long as they only had one candidate for any given office.

If we were a single-party-dominated state because the voters shared a strong set of shared values and generally reached an informed consensus on candidates early in the process so that primaries were generally expensive but hollow shows of democracy and general elections were generally a formal recognition of that informed consensus then I would say that the system was healthy.

So long as we remain instead a single-party-dominated state because voters are largely abandoning any active participation in the political process and choosing instead to cast uninformed votes based on minimal information allowing the dominant party to go unchallenged until a major issue arises (like revelations of clearly unethical prior conduct by a newly minted Attorney General – not to name any names) then I think it is imperative for those who recognize the problems in the system to work for reforms that will foster a healthy political climate.