Sweep Primary Caucuses Into the Dustbin of History

Both parties should toss aside these unrepresentative elections.

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Polk County delegates hold a town hall meeting before caucusing at the Polk County Democrats Convention at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, March 15, 2008. At the convention, delegates elected during the January Iowa caucuses will finalize their nomination for the 2008 Democratic convention.

Even though the Republican Growth and Opportunity Project's recommendation to shorten the presidential nominating process is likely to exacerbate the problems that stem from "front-loading," its suggestion to "discourag[e] conventions and caucuses for the purposes of allocating delegates to the national convention" should be enthusiastically embraced by both political parties.

Although conventions and caucuses reward committed party activists and tend to be only marginally less representative of the party's broader electorate, the simple fact is their burdensome physical presence requirement and often significant time demands exclude potential voters from participating in the presidential nominating process.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

With the exception of Iowa, most states holding presidential caucuses rarely exceed 2 percent turnout of the eligible-voting population. And while primary election turnout is often nothing to write home about (typically between 15 and 20 percent), there can be little doubt that more people have more opportunities to vote in primaries than in caucuses.

Since the parties—not the states (as is the case with primaries)—finance and run these rather cloistered contests, they're also more vulnerable to voter fraud and less accountable to the federal laws that protect a citizen's voting rights. They're a throwback to the party machine era, when bosses not only controlled nominations, but also intimidated voters. This is even truer when the parties adopt rules eliminating secret ballots and requiring caucus attendees to publicly declare their choices.

Beyond this, in proportionally allocated contests, a presidential candidate who devotes significant resources to caucuses can rack up delegates by securing large winning margins with relatively few popular votes.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Photo ID Be Required to Vote?]

For instance, in 2008, Democrats held 40 primaries and 16 caucuses. While a total of about 36 million people voted in all of these contests, 35 million of them voted in the primaries. Taken together, Hillary Clinton earned approximately 300,000 more votes than Barack Obama in the primaries (71 percent of the nominating contests). Obama earned about 300,000 more votes than Clinton in the caucuses (29 percent of the nominating contests). Their respectively earned 300,000 popular vote leads were not equal. The larger turnout in the primaries meant that Clinton's lead in those contests earned her only 16 more delegates than Obama, whereas Obama's lead in the caucuses earned him 143 more delegates than Clinton. Obama made the tail wag the dog and won the nomination.

Party conventions and caucuses are no way to run a purportedly open democratic process. Rank-and-file partisans shouldn't ever forget what Tammany Hall boss William Tweed once said: "I don't care who does the electing so long as I do the nominating."

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