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It's time to abandon America's cockeyed caucuses
The GOP's string of presidential caucuses has been an embarrassment rife with tallying failures, botched communication, and voter disenfranchisement
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey
T

oday, voters in Arizona and Michigan choose their preferred candidate in the Republican presidential nomination race. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have mainly focused on the fight in Michigan, where the contest has essentially become a two-man battle. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have become all but invisible. So with the nomination on the line, it's time for a bold prediction about the results in Arizona and Michigan.

We will actually find out who won them within 24 hours.

Readers may scoff — but sadly, that prediction isn't as self-evident as it appears. This isn't the way it has worked out in this nomination race so far. The primaries have gone smoothly, with voter counts handled by state apparatuses in New Hampshire, Florida, and South Carolina. When it comes to caucuses, however, the results have been much more mixed … and embarrassing.

Neither party should recognize caucuses as official events in the march to their conventions.

The cycle started off with Iowa, which holds itself as the natural starting point for both parties' efforts to choose presidential nominees. Republican candidates spent months traversing corn fields, talking with voters, and spending enough on ads and pizza to retire the national debt of small countries. The Republican Party even got a chance to have a dry run with its Ames straw poll in August, which Michele Bachmann won in a demonstration of just how valuable pre-caucuses are.

When it came time to hold their actual caucus in the first week of January, however, the state party couldn't get its act together. Thanks to their high-tech practice of counting ballots by hand in each precinct and writing down the results on scraps of paper, it took until the wee hours of the morning before the Republican Party of Iowa declared Mitt Romney the winner by eight votes over a surprisingly strong Rick Santorum. But Santorum's strength was even more surprising than the Iowa GOP calculated. Figures from a few precincts had been written down incorrectly. Two weeks later, Iowa got around to finally declaring that Santorum and not Romney had won the Iowa caucuses, long after the New Hampshire primary results had been certified, making a joke of Iowa's insistence on going first in the nomination process.

The next caucus took place in Nevada, and disaster followed Republicans into the Silver State. The best that can be said about Nevada's caucus process was that it took them much less time to figure out who won, but the actual results didn't get published for two days. Veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston reported on the "chaos" in the Las Vegas caucus location, and said that the process made "the Keystone Kops look like the Mossad":

All around him at the small county headquarters near downtown Las Vegas were open boxes of ballots, folders strewn about on tables where mostly elderly vote-counters were sitting, and sign-in sheets from caucus locations were missing.

"It was chaos in there," [Carl] Bunce [of the Ron Paul campaign] recalled. "It was a rat's nest."

The caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado passed with relatively little controversy or trouble, but Maine provided the nadir of the caucus model thus far. First, Maine's caucuses lasted an entire week, not just a few hours on a single day. No one knows exactly why it takes Maine a week to caucus when the state manages to vote in general elections in a single day. But regardless, when it came time to count the votes, Republicans in Maine managed to make Iowa look efficient. Six days after the conclusion of the caucuses, the GOP chair admitted that the party missed a number of precinct tallies because they ended up in the spam folder of an email account. Romney ended up (barely) winning the Maine caucuses over Ron Paul, but Paul supporters are still angry over the vote-counting failure.

And of course, the biggest embarrassment from the caucuses is that they largely don't count anyway. Of the five caucuses that have taken place, only Nevada's has produced delegate assignments. While the media includes delegate counts from other caucus states, officially, no delegates have been bound from Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, or Maine. Gingrich remains in second place with 28 delegates, behind Romney with 73, while Rick Santorum has only three. Delegates will get assigned at state conventions that won't take place until the spring, long after the race will have been decided.

All of this prompts the question as to why states use the caucus model at all. Caucuses are a throwback to 19th-century politicking, before the days of the "Australian ballot" reform that led to voting privacy and better control of elections by the states. By the early 20th century, political reformers in many states had moved the vote-casting and vote-counting functions of nominating contests to the widely-accepted voting systems, where the votes could be counted by the state government rather than party leaders. While some may complain that even the state ballot system has its problems, as Florida proved in 2000 and Minnesota in 2008, disruptions in the voting and counting process are rare rather than systemic. Instead of creating Keystone Kops scenarios, parties can rely on existing, modern infrastructure to reliably tally the votes for each candidate.

Furthermore, the caucus system leaves out a number of people by making it impossible to vote outside of the meetings themselves. Those who find themselves traveling on a caucus night simply cannot participate. Most of a county in Maine couldn't cast votes because of a snowstorm that hit during their caucus meetings. Had this been handled like an election, as will be the case in Arizona and Michigan tonight, voters could have hit the polls earlier in the day ahead of the storm, or prepared absentee ballots.

This primary cycle proves that Republicans and Democrats alike should demand cleaner and more reliable voting in their nomination processes. Neither party should recognize caucuses as official events in the march to their conventions, and both should put pressure on their state organizations to adopt primary voting that allows for more flexible participation by voters. The embarrassing failures of the cockeyed caucuses in this cycle hardly build voter confidence in the parties, the candidates, or the results.

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