Primaries and Caucuses


In the United States presidential elections, a primary is a statewide voting process in which voters cast secret ballots for their preferred candidates; a caucus is a system of local gatherings where voters decide which candidate to support. Both systems culminate in the selection of delegates who will vote on behalf of the electorate at a party’s national convention.

On closer inspection, the system is incredibly convoluted and even undemocratic. Consider the following news report:

“We’re putting up right now a graphic Bernie Sanders wins 56 to 44 percent in Wyoming the delegates rewarded Hillary Clinton 11 Bernie Sanders 7. Why does the Democratic Party even have voting booths? This system is so rigged!” – MSNBC

And it is not just the Democrats, when Donald Trump won Louisiana beating Ted Cruz by more than 3 percent he was upset to discover Ted Cruz could potentially get as many as 10 more delegates or as he put it:

“I end up winning in Louisiana, and then when everything is done I find out I get less delegates and this guy that got his ass kicked, OK. Give me a break!” – Donald Trump

There is no clearer piece of evidence that this system is broken than when Donald Trump is actually making sense. Confronted with results like these, the process appears counter-intuitive.

For many years parties did not operate this way. Until 50 years ago, most states did not even have primaries, candidates were chosen by party insiders at the convention. However, in 1968, that system broke down when the Democratic Party leadership picked Hubert Humphrey despite the fact he had not even competed in a single primary. Democrats were outraged and the convention was chaos.

In the years that followed that mess, both parties reformed their processes to give their rank and file members more of a say; however, many of the details were left up to state leaders which might help explain the erratic madness every four years. Indeed, almost every part of this process is difficult to defend.

For instance, while most states hold primaries, in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, one or both parties hold caucuses. Very few people attend caucuses. While Republican primary turnout in 2012 was 19 percent, their turnout for caucuses averaged just 3 percent.

Primaries realise higher voter turnout and seem, therefore, the preferable system. However, in the State of Washington, things get a little more complicated. In Washington state, there are both carcasses and presidential primaries where voters cast a ballot in private. Be that as it may, the Democrats have ignored its result from the day it was introduced. In other words, only the Washington Democratic caucus is binding.

Then there is the problem of how the delegates get divided up. This is key because the voter does not directly vote for a presidential candidate but instead votes to help determine the delegates who will attend their party’s national convention and vote for a candidate on their behalf. And some states have even more steps in between.

Consider Nevada, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Democrats organised a caucus in February which was won by Hillary Clinton, but that caucus only determined 23 out of the 35 regular delegates. As for the remaining 12, those were decided by delegates at the state convention who, in turn, were chosen by the delegates at the county conventions in April, who were chosen in those February caucuses, which Hillary won.

The arcane party structures do not reflect how most people assume presidential selection works and that in itself is a huge problem. Any election should have clear rules and look this this patchwork of convoluted systems would be annoying enough, but each party also has its own way of potentially putting its thumb on the scale.

For Democrats it is super delegates, about 15 percent of the total delegates to this summer’s Democratic convention are unpledged, these are elected officials former presidents and assorted party bigwigs called super delegates they can vote for whichever candidate they want regardless of who won in their state or district. The idea behind super delegates was at the party leaders could step in if they did not like the way things were heading.

Meanwhile, Republicans have their own way of diluting the power of primary votes. In many states delegates are only required to reflect their states choice in the first round of convention voting; after that, they become unbound delegates and can vote for whomever they want. Pennsylvania take this even further: out of their 71 delegates, 54 are completely unbound even on the first ballot. And while these delegates are elected by voters, those voters may not know what they are actually voting for.

“If you are a GOP voter, you may well know which candidate you are choosing when you step into the voting booth, but when it comes to choosing delegates to the presidential convention there is no way for you to know which ones support which candidates because it is simply not listed.” – CBS News

And it gets one step crazier, in 2016, North Dakota Republicans had neither a caucus nor a primary. The party just chose 28 delegates themselves, and in explaining why primaries are not that important, one of those delegates kind of gave the whole game away:

“In previous years we’ve used primaries to probably get us some kind of an indication of of the preference of the population but the delegates at the convention choose a nominee not the voters in the primaries.” – Curly Haugland, RNC comittee member

To be fair to both parties, they are basically private clubs. They can set their own rules. In theory, they could give the nomination to whichever candidate comes first alphabetically or whichever one can squeeze a frog the hardest without crushing it. However, if you play by a system of complex opaque rules that almost nobody understands and that you could use your advantage, you are going to alienate voters. This is a system which clearly needs wholesale reform.

The real problem is, once the system produces a winner, the conversation turns to just move on. Consider the following callous statement:

“You’ve been hearing me say it’s a rigged system but now I don’t say it anymore because I won, okay. You know now I don’t care. I don’t care.” – Donald Trump

– Courtesy of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

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4 thoughts on “Primaries and Caucuses

  1. Recent report that the Dems were rigging the media polls. I bet the Republicans do the same. It’s all for media spin to influence how people vote. It’s rigged

  2. Not to be a fusspot, (I know, more often than not, when someone says that, they’re being a d*ck) but that is not the same as rigging the system. Especially when all parties participate. It’s dishonest and manipulative I grant you, like a fake endorsement, and perhaps even disturbing, but it’s not the same as rigging the system. In my book, rigging is interfering with the actual voting process – stuffing ballot boxes, for instance.

    I would argue it’s surprisingly hard to actually (and more importantly, successfully!) rig the current system since it’s so messy and convoluted. The system certainly isn’t democratic, but it is not oligarchical either; it’s too much of a Catch-22 for that.

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