Although the presidential election remains many months away, the ongoing nomination process has garnered an enormous amount of attention from the media and from voters concerned about issues like health care, Iraq and the strength of the U.S. economy.
With this increased awareness has come the realization that the state-by-state nature of the nomination process will play a significant role in determining both parties’ nominees. Every state is important.
Keeping this importance in mind, perhaps it is time to reconsider how some states participate in this process. The vast majority rely on primaries, but a number of states determine winners and losers through caucuses. Iowa and Nevada, two states that were especially important this year because of their early placement in the nomination process, use caucuses. Although laudable for requiring a high level of voter engagement, the caucus system is flawed for a number of reasons.
In caucuses, most voters do not select candidates by secret ballot as in primaries or in the general election; rather, they attend designated caucus sites (schools, gymnasiums, government buildings, etc.) where they vote publicly by clustering together with other supporters of their candidate or recording their votes on sign-up sheets. In precincts where candidates fail to pick up the minimum following required to earn a delegate (usually 15 to 25 percent of total turnout), their supporters are given around 30 minutes to pick another candidate. Otherwise, their votes are discarded.
The public nature of the caucus removes the greatest barrier to voter intimidation – the privacy of the voting booth. Since anyone from neighbors to employers can participate and note individuals’ voting choices, the possibility of coercion, whether subtle or direct, is not far-fetched.
Indeed, the overwhelming trend toward the use of secret ballots in local, state and national elections began in the late 1800s as a response to the rampant fraud and voter intimidation that occurred during the United States’ disreputable Gilded Age.
Widespread voting fraud may be unlikely in the age of 24-hour election coverage, but the possibility of fraud on a smaller scale remains. Shortly before the Nevada caucus on Jan. 19, former President Bill Clinton grabbed headlines when he charged that the leadership of a union backing Barack Obama was suppressing the votes of union members supporting Hillary Clinton.
Whether one regards these accusations as accurate or a cheap political ploy, the possibility that someone in a position of influence might use underhanded tactics is distinctly more likely to occur in caucuses than in primaries.
What is to keep a “friendly” employer from attending a caucus with his employees and “suggesting” a choice or a union organizer from “explaining” the virtues of a candidate to union members? These actions can hardly be considered illegal, yet they are distinctly unfair. This sort of subtle intimidation can also occur in a primary system, but it is negated by the secrecy of the voting booth, where the voter can freely choose a candidate without fear of reprisal or ostracism.
In addition, the caucus adds unnecessary confusion to choosing a candidate. In most elections and primaries, Americans generally vote for the candidate they believe is the most qualified. In caucuses, this seemingly straightforward decision is consistently turned on its head. In precincts where major candidates fail to secure enough votes to win a delegate, their supporters are encouraged to vote for fringe candidates who have little chance of winning the nomination, thus denying vital delegates to more serious rivals.
Some candidates even strike deals. In 2004, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich asked their supporters to vote for the other in precincts where one of them failed to secure enough support to win a delegate.
All of this maneuvering may seem relatively harmless, but with so many important issues on the line, does it make sense that caucusgoers are voting for candidates whose main attraction is their inability to win?
Lastly, since voters can only participate by physically attending caucus sites for several hours, caucuses exclude more voters than do primaries. In particular, caucuses inherently discriminate against a group of Americans who have perhaps the greatest stake in the choice of the next president: military servicemen serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No voting system is perfect, but several flaws in the current caucus system could be avoided if all states used primaries. In primary states, voters can quickly and easily pick the candidates of their choice by secret ballot; moreover, American troops deployed abroad and other categories of voters who cannot physically attend local voting sites, like the disabled, can let their voices be heard through absentee ballots. The advantages of primaries are obvious.
Jaramillo is a member of the class of 2011.