Caucus System: A Microcosm of the Electoral College Debate

Eliminating the caucus system will allow for the nomination of candidates that are more representative of partisans’ opinions and not the select opinions of the elite.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I refreshed the page of my Iowa Caucus results stream for the umpteenth time, anticipating one of my countless clicks to suddenly yield an update. Data reports had still not been released a full day after the caucuses' forum, and I sought an explanation—the general consensus was that the application employed by the state failed to broadcast the voter data properly. But when the last handful of precinct data points tumbled onto The New York Times election board two days after the expected release, even these long-awaited results were met with uncertainty by some of democracy's most astute believers. Whether these inconsistencies were a product of technological malfunction or the updated Iowa voter protocol, Democrats cannot afford needless errors on the national stage nor provide fuel for embellished Republican “shade” toward the competency of the Democratic Party. President Trump’s re-election campaign manager, Brad Parscale, seized the opportunity to label the Democratic Party as perpetrators of a rigged election, an argument that embodies the childish nature of partisan division. Regardless of the Iowa Caucus and its implications, one message must be clear—we must never let the structure of our democratic system thwart democratic will.

For the most part, the United States election system has advanced toward making its democratic wills a reality. Voter turnout has consistently increased since 1972, and the addition of early, online, and mail-in voting has made the democratic process more accessible for all. But while much has changed in terms of system efficiency, the ins and outs of the U.S. political system haven’t become any less confusing. The means by which presidential candidates are selected deviate in each of the 50 states. Authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of election are granted to each state in Article 1 Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, but recent Republican efforts in 2020 have called attention to a hiccup in this “democratic” rule. According to data-analyst Chris Cillizza, four Republican-dominated states are cancelling their GOP primaries to “cut off opposition within the GOP to President Donald Trump.” While we have seen states fall on the spectrum between open primaries, in which anyone can take part, to closed primaries, in which only party members can participate, the idea of a state cancelling its primary altogether is dangerous to the future of the democratic process. The problem does not lie in the legality of this Republican move—it is perfectly legal under the outlined laws—but rather in the responsibility of the democratic system to adjust to the manipulation of its open-endedness.

An adjustment that must be made is phasing out the caucus system. Seven U.S. states and territories currently employ caucus primaries but the system has a history of snafus. Voter turnout is typically low, with at most 10 percent of a state’s party identifiers participating on a given caucus night. Caucuses, in theory, serve to gauge a party's interest in presidential candidates, but they are designed in favor of the limited numbers that can attend them and not the mass of party identifiers. Mainstream primary election systems yield double to triple the amount of voters and are much more organized than the often chaotic caucus meetings. According to Politico journalist Steven Schier, the Minnesota Democratic Caucus provided voters with under two hours to cast their ballots, many of which were cast on post-it notes. It is undemocratic for voters to be denied their right to vote because of unrealistic time constraints, and as Minnesota's Democratic chairman contends, the caucus system is simply unequipped for larger turnouts. Eliminating the caucus system will allow for the nomination of candidates that are more representative of public opinion at large—not merely the select opinions of the elite.

Nowhere is the fallibility of our current democratic system, as well as the failure of our federal government to educate us on the difference between some of its most minute variations, more evident than in our current caucus and Electoral College systems. I have an understanding of the definition of a caucus, but that understanding is loose at best, and the majority of the United States voting population does not understand the ins, outs, or even whats of the caucus system. In Utah, local leadership officials asserted that “as much as 90 percent of people do not participate in caucuses largely due to a lack of understanding.”

I continued to refresh the results page and was confused to see Bernie Sanders, the 2016 democratic nominee runner-up, obtain the popular vote but lose the state by one delegate. The United States began its controversial relationship with the caucus system in 1804, and it has raised red flags about the truthfulness of our "democracy" more than once. The Iowa Caucus fiasco is just another red flag in the sea of the democratic process. It will serve democracy well to move on.