02 January 2008

The Impact of Caucuses In Colorado

The Daily Kos post is about Iowa, but the criticisms are equally applicable to Colorado.

As in years past, voters must present themselves in person, at a specified hour, and stay for as long as two. And if these caucuses are anything like prior ones, only a tiny percentage of Iowans will participate. In 2000, the last year in which both parties held caucuses, 59,000 Democrats and 87,000 Republicans voted, in a state with 2.9 million people. In 2004, when the Republicans did not caucus, 124,000 people turned out for the Democratic caucuses.[...]

While the Republican caucuses are fairly simple — voters can leave shortly after they declare their preferences — Democratic caucuses can require more time and multiple candidate preferences from participants. They do not conform to the one-person, one-vote rule, because votes are weighted according to a precinct’s past level of participation.

Historical turnout in Colorado for caucuses hovers around 1% of registered voters in the party, compared to about 8% for Iowa, although Colorado has not had a Presidential caucus in recent history and turnout tends to be driven by top of the ticket races. This year, Colorado should have high turnout at its February 5 caucuses since a Presidential race is at stake and not tied up. But, the turnout will still be smaller than Iowa because the tradition of an early Presidential caucus is not well established in Colorado. Both figures, of course, are far lower than primary election turnouts which are rarely less than 10% and not infrequently have turnouts in the range of 30% to 40% of active registered voters affiliated with a political party. Caucus attendees are far more strongly partisan and politically active than primary voters.

The deviation from the one man, one vote idea reflects the caucus notion that attendees are serving a delegates serving in a representative capacity on behalf of party members in their precinct, not strictly in a personal capacity. Those who benefit from this model are in precincts with lots of party members, and poor caucus day turnout, on the theory that those who attend are better representative of those who can't attend than caucus attendees statewide. In short, it partially remedies the exclusive nature of the caucus. In particular, it is designed to prevent a precinct with a highly effective turnout campaign from dominating the process. In the same way, members of Congress and state legislatures are elected with dramatically different numbers of votes, but no one thinks of those bodies as violating the one man, one vote rule. Also, at a precinct level, in practice, the differences from one man, one vote are modest.

Unlike Iowa, which has multiple candidate preference expressions at the base level of the system, Colorado usually obtains only top of the ticket preferences on caucus nights and levels delegates chosen on that occasion to nominate candidates at later county, multi-county district and state assemblies and conventions over the next couple of months. As a result, candidates are placed on the ballot in down ticket races by people who must show even more commitment to the point of basically being party officials, and are smaller in number than the number of people who turn out on caucus day. This means that Colorado is considerably more exclusive than Iowa in down ticket races. In theory, the system should also produce coattail effects that benefit down ticket candidates allied with top of the ticket candidates, but the factions in the Colorado Democratic Party aren't well enough defined for this effect to be very meaningful in practice.

Colorado allows candidates to petition onto a primary ballot instead of gaining access via the caucus process, but fewer than 5% of candidates who ultimately are elected use the petition route. Colorado will have no Presidential primary at all this year. Strong candidates usually only petition in open seats with many strong candidates running at once where the caucus system's rules can produce quirky results in multi-candidate races. Described negatively this means that most people are effectively excluded from a key piece of the process of narrowing the ranks of potential candidates to the top Republican and top Democrat. This is a step that effectively decides the race in jurisdictions that lopsidedly favor one party or the other and tends to exclude moderates from public office. Described positively, however, this allows political parties in Colorado to have a high degree of control over who they nominate to represent them, giving political parties greater coherence.

There are five primary benefits of caucuses.

First, they tend to lead to more informed decision making because attendees often hearing speeches from candidates (or at least a spokesperson for a candidate) immediately before making a decision. This is particularly important in down ticket races that are poorly covered by the mass media. A related issue is that party nominees are more likely to reflect the party's ideology, because the unorthodox views of marginal party members tend to be excluded.

Second, it is much easier to mount a low budget primary campaign through the caucus process than by appealing to the general public, which is particularly important for minor statewide offices like state treasurer, secretary of state, C.U. Regent and state school board member. This makes it easier for less affluent candidates to run in these race and frees candidates in these races from dependence upon raising big money from campaign contributors until a nomination is assured.

Third, caucuses provide a way for parties to identify, mobilize and reward volunteers. Most caucus attendees ultimately do some work for the party. Many party leaders got involved by being roped into serving as a precinct committee person or some other party office at a caucus, and then catching the politics bug after feeling duty bound to follow through on their caucus day obligation. Without the caucuses, party leaders would be far less in touch with the active rank and file members of the party.

Fourth, caucuses are easy on the public purse and lower transaction costs. Unlike primary elections, which are usually run by governments at their expense, caucuses are, in Colorado at least, paid for by the parties themselves. And, while this is expensive for a small non-profit organization like a county political party, it is in the aggregate far less expensive than having the government conduct a primary election.

Fifth, caucuses spare the general public from informing themselves about and resolving races that they don't care about or race where there is a clear dominant candidate, while involving them in close, important fights over the party's direction (usually with all viable candidates appearing on the ballot via the caucus process).

I'm ambivalent about the caucus v. primary debate and see both sides of it. I also come at the debate seeing it a symptom of a deeper issue. We have a political primary system with two major parties in the United States because our general election rules produce bad reesult in cases with more than two viable candidates as a result of spoiler effects. If we had a Denver style non-partisan multi-round election process, or instant runoff voting that approximates the multi-round election process in a single transaction, or a proportional representation system in multi-member bodies, political primaries would be unnecessary, or at least far less important. But, in the absence of that kind of general election system, partisan primaries act to create a rough justice comparable result with an otherwise flawed system, and both primaries and caucuses serve those objectives in different ways.

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