There is a battle raging right now all over social media, in the news, and on the streets: The caucus system vs. the primary. I’ve always been a proponent of the primary, and found the caucus system leaving a bad taste in my mouth after what many called “extremist” candidates were propelled into office due to so-called “extremist” citizens using the caucus system to “game” the voting process.
However, I’ve had some second thoughts about my enthusiasm for a primary, and I find myself wondering if the issue I’ve had with the caucus was actually due to any flaw in the system, or more a problem with our society.
The Caucus System
The caucus process is certainly more complicated and involved than a primary. It starts with a precinct meeting, which typically makes up about 1,200 to 1,300 homes (typically your neighborhood). Participation varies depending on whether the caucus is open or closed. In an open caucus, anyone in the precinct can take part. In a closed caucus, only members of the political party that is holding the caucus can take part. In either case, those that can participate are encouraged to do so. At these meetings, constituents discuss the candidates and political issues they feel are important and delegates are chosen to represent and vote for the precinct at the county and state levels. These delegates then relay their precinct’s concerns, questions, and ideas directly to the candidates — creating a dialogue between the constituents and the candidates.
While the process is involved, there are certain advantages to it. It forces political candidates to pay attention to all precincts and interact with their delegates personally — no matter how much money they have or how great their campaign machine is. This also ensures rural areas, as well as metropolitan areas, are heard.
Many people have seen the caucus system as favoring those already in power and extremist political factions — myself included. But I’m starting to feel this is a case of “correlation, not causation” so to speak. The caucus system certainly favors the politically active and knowledgeable — which will of course favor the two aforementioned groups. Extremist factions tend to be very politically active and politicians up for re-election already have a base of activists to draw from.
This, to me, is the biggest failing of the caucus system: Our uneducated, apathetic society. In 2012, only 57% of eligible voters voted — and that’s just to get to a booth and put check marks on a ballot. It’s no wonder the caucus system has been overrun by so-called extremists who actually pay attention and get involved in politics. But that’s not a failing of the system, that’s a failing of the voting public.
Like the caucus, a primary can be either open or closed. And that’s pretty much where the similarities between caucuses and primaries end.
Primaries are a lot more simple than the caucus. It’s a straight “one person, one vote” deal — which is, I think, the best way for a candidate to be selected.
Because there is less time required from people in a primary it means everyone can truly take part too. Busy parents, educators, and working-class people who might not have the opportunity to take part in a caucus system can easily take a few minutes to vote in a booth.
But there are some notable downsides to this system as well.
Since there are no precinct meetings or delegates, candidates instead focus on raising money for advertisements to reach constituents, largely scaling back one-on-one or local interaction and focusing on high-population areas. The focus on advertisements and fundraising can also turn primaries into a battle of money, with the candidate who has the most all too often coming out on top.
It also reduces the involvement and political acumen needed from voters. Everyone can vote, but not necessarily everyone should. Too many voters, it seems, vote without comprehensively researching or discussing candidates and public policy.
Education and openness
Regardless of whether we ultimately use a caucus system or primary, the key thing that needs to be emphasized is education and open discussion. Politics needs to become something every citizen takes part in and actively discusses with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues.
Just as important, we need to be able to openly discuss politics. Too much political discussion devolves into shouting matches or hyperbolic rhetoric.
The American political landscape has become a series of echo chambers. Friends, family and neighbors have stopped discussing politics with those who have a different stance, saving their political thoughts for like-minded individuals. Without proper criticism or a different view on things, there’s no way to refine each other’s viewpoints or truly figure out what makes each other tick.
We need to turn off the vitriol of Fox News and MSNBC and talk plainly, but passionately, about the issues that affect our country, especially with those who think differently than us.