I admit to embarrassing ignorance on the caucus system. I suppose it has not come up so dramatically and importantly before. Here is a good explanation of the disadvantages of what is going on.
Once again, we are discovering that our election process works great as long as it doesn’t actually have to decide anything.Democrats are having an exciting race for the presidential nomination, which always means trouble. Now we’re being told that it all comes down to Ohio (currently engaged in voting-machine litigation) and Texas, which has a system that involves both a primary and a caucus.
One-third of the states that have voted for a presidential nominee so far have done it by caucus. There is an impression abroad that these caucuses are grass-roots democracy, like those cute town meetings in “The Gilmore Girls.” Even if that were true, which it’s not, consider whether you would really want a presidential nominee selected by about 20 colorful characters in a barn.
Most people have never been to a caucus, even if their state happens to have them. In Washington, the caucuses last Saturday drew a little more than 1 percent of the registered voters. Mike Huckabee won his much-heralded victory in Kansas in caucuses where less than 20,000 Republicans participated.
I was at a Democratic caucus at the South Portland High School gymnasium in Maine last weekend. It was run by some lovely, public-spirited people and was attended by about 1,000 voters who took the trouble to come out of their homes on an extremely snowy Sunday. Kudos to all. However, on the down side:
A) The parking lot was also accommodating the audience for the final performance of “High School Musical.” Hillary! Barack! Troy! Gabriella! If only they’d had Hannah Montana in the library, we could have backed up the cars into New Hampshire.
B) The gym’s seating was not constructed for people over the age of 18. If you were inspired by those Iraqis with purple fingers, envision an elderly man with a cane trying to clamber up over several tiers of benches so he could spend the afternoon sitting on a backless bench in order to vote for a presidential nominee.
C) The caucus was scheduled to open at 1 p.m. Three hours later, they were just approaching the part where people actually vote.
“I know this is not the most pleasant place to spend the afternoon,” said Larry Bliss, a state representative who seemed as close to being in charge as anyone. Babies cried. Clinton supporters diverted themselves by spelling out HILLARY over and over. The Obama supporters, who were clearly more numerous, had not remembered to bring giant letters and were having a little trouble with BARACK.
Caucuses normally work fine because somewhere around the New Hampshire primary, the presidential nominees usually become a foregone conclusion. Then the only job for the parties in other states is to conscript a handful of delegates to a state convention and ratify the inevitable choice. Caucuses are great for this. And the states like them because they don’t have to pay for a real primary. This is the crucial point. Caucuses have nothing to do with recapturing the spirit of the New England town meeting. They exist because they cost the states nothing. And you get what you pay for.
The South Portland Democrats, who were all working as volunteers, had prepared for the 1,000-odd voters who showed up. But they could not handle the very large number who were not party members and had to be registered before the caucus could get under way. Then came speeches from candidates for Congress and the State Legislature. Then the nominating speeches, which were complicated by the fact that about a dozen Dennis Kucinich partisans insisted on speaking out for their man. The attorney general of Rhode Island spoke for Obama and then introduced Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who spoke for Obama again.
State Representative Bliss then announced that it appeared that Barack had really gotten two speeches, so there would be additional remarks by the Clinton and Kucinich camps to make everything fair.
That was about when we lost a woman who was on chemotherapy. An elderly lady with hip problems stuck it out to the bitter end and should be given a Medal of Freedom.
Finally, it was time for people to divide into groups and be counted. On one side of the gym, a leader was addressing the confused crowd through a toy megaphone, for want of any better amplification system. “I’m reading the instructions as we go along,” he said.
On the other side, once voters were divided into Clinton, Obama and Kucinich camps, and noses counted, the leaders seemed at a loss as to what to do next. “We’ll get back to you,” one of them told the crowd. About 20 minutes later, everyone was dismissed. They had yet to figure out exactly who had won what.
I can’t wait for Texas.