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Are Caucuses Democratic?

by Adam Fogel // Published April 21, 2008
Stumping for Hillary on Saturday in Meadville, PA at my alma mater, Allegheny College, former president Bill Clinton started a new line of argumentation about why superdelegates should move to his wife's candidacy. The basic premise of the argument is that caucuses are undemocratic and unrepresentative. He claims that a delegate at the Democratic National Convention who is from a caucus state equals 2,200 voters, while a delegate from a primary state is worth 11,000. In the clip below, Clinton says he is glad to be in Crawford County because it is "the home of the direct primary...and I think direct primaries are good. They are more democratic--small 'd' as well as big 'D.'"

In Rob Richie and my paper, "Delegating Democracy: How the Parties Can Make Their Presidential Nominating Contests More Democratic," we analyze the caucus process and find serious flaws with it. First, it makes it impossible for people to vote who can't block 2 hours or more out of their evening to caucus. People with family obligations or who work the night shift are left out with no alternative means of having their voice heard. Second, military voters have no way to participate in caucuses, which is something most Americans would find repugnant. Finally, caucuses are open-forums with rules many first time caucus goers would find intimidating or confusing.

Caucuses themselves may not be "undemocratic," as President Clinton suggests, but it is necessary that states with caucuses have safeguards in place to encourage participation and allows those not able to attend the caucus have their votes counted in the process. We suggest caucus states begin using a hybrid system where people out of town on the day of the caucus (like military voters) can "cyber-caucus," where they can log onto a secure website and cast their vote. Folks without computer access should also be able to "absentee caucus" before Election Day.

The point President Clinton makes about some (elected) delegates counting more at the convention than others is an important one also. In our paper, we suggest several ways to ensure each delegate is worth the same amount, no matter what state the delegate comes from. The rules for allocating delegates is a confusing patchwork that makes certain voters worth more than others. At their convention in August, the Democratic Party should take a look at their nominating process from top to bottom and find a way forward that ensures they truly live up to their name.