Turnout at the Ada County Democratic caucus on Tuesday reached historic levels. As the day developed, commentary on social media from caucus-goers, regardless of their affinity for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, turned from pride to annoyance to dismay.
By the end of the evening, more than 9,000 county residents were able to cast their vote — an incredible number, to be sure. But what about the literally countless number of potential participants who were unable to vote, due to lines snaking over a mile or just an inability to be at the prescribed location at the right time? Or the fact that those who were fortunate enough to have their voices heard had to commit several hours to do so?
Part of the problem was the Democratic Party’s choice to hold countywide caucuses, rather than precinct by precinct. As the party deals with complaints over this year’s event, certainly some will discuss whether the 2020 caucus should be held at the precinct level. That would be an improvement, but the focus on where to hold caucuses should not distract from the fact that the caucus as a form of election is inherently undemocratic, particularly when compared with the primary system.
Caucuses penalize a wide range of voters, from the elderly and military members serving overseas to working-class voters working inconvenient shifts, to families who have to decide which parent gets to caucus and which stays home with the kids. They are also often haphazard affairs with inconsistent tallying procedures that privilege those who are physically able to be present and participate for a lengthy period over those who for any reason are not.
In response to the problems the Democratic Party faced, the Idaho Republican Party put out an infographic that cast the advantages of the primary system over the caucus in stark terms. Not only did the Republican turnout (as a percentage of total registered voters) dwarf the Democrats at a 10-to-1 rate, but 74 percent of registered Republicans voted compared to 34 percent of registered Democrats. A significant amount of this difference can be directly linked to the difference between primaries and caucuses in general, and particularly the chaotic nature of how the caucuses were implemented here this year.
Some Democratic leaders might respond to these differences by pointing out that the Republicans have their presidential primary paid for by the state, but that is a flawed argument. Elections are an essential function of government, and government costs money. If the price to keep the selection of one party’s presidential nominee results in significant disenfranchisement, then that is the price that is too high to be paid, not the approximately $2 million it costs for a statewide election here in Idaho.
To her credit, Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, recently stated in a Facebook post that the party’s leadership team is “on board with conducting a primary in 2020.” Let’s hope that this happens and that Democrats move away from the anachronistic caucus. It will be better for their party, their members and representative politics in Idaho itself. Hopefully we don’t see a repeat of Tuesday’s outcome next time around, where cheers of having the largest caucus in history must be heard alongside stories about milelong lines, multihour events and chaotic venues.
Justin S. Vaughn is associate professor of political science at Boise State University.