Politics

02.15.12

Maine, Iowa Caucus Mishaps Prove It’s Time for a Better System

It’s déjà vu as missing precincts mean Mitt Romney may not have won Maine after all. This year’s mistaken outcomes are not surprising when you consider how flawed the entire caucus system is. There’s got to be a better way, writes John Avlon.

After the epic fail of Iowa’s caucuses—falsely naming Mitt Romney the winner for more than a month—now it looks like there’s trouble brewing in the Maine caucuses as well.

Romney was named the narrow winner in Maine on Saturday over Ron Paul—gaining him a triumphant top-of-the-fold photo in the Sunday New York Times—but it now appears that several counties that held caucuses were not calculated in the “final” tally. According to the Bangor Daily News, there is growing pressure on the state GOP to reassess the votes and at least potentially declare a new winner.

There’s got to be a better way to pick a presidential nominee.

The high-stakes nature of each early caucus state—giving the initially declared winner momentum, media attention, and money—makes these apparently rampant bureaucratic errors unacceptable.

In addition, the caucus system is fundamentally unrepresentative, disproportionately dominated by semiorganized bands of activists, and leads to low turnout.

Even after the endless media hype surrounding the GOP primary contests this year, turnout was essentially flat in the Iowa caucuses between 2008 and 2012, despite the absence of a Democratic contest to siphon off participants. Turnout was dramatically down in caucuses in Nevada, Minnesota, and Colorado. In Maine, fewer than 6,000 voters bothered to participate—roughly 2 percent of the registered Republicans in the state. Overall, caucus turnout is averaging about 10 percent of registered Republicans in each state.

Moreover, those 10 percent who do turn out tend to be the most ideological and hyperpartisan—meaning that the winner of a caucus is increasingly a bad barometer of who might actually carry the state in a general election by being able to win over independents and centrist swing voters.

Primaries inspire a much higher turnout—and a more representative sample of the state electorate if it is an open primary—at least in part because of the minimized hassle factor. You get a secret ballot and swing by your polling station at any time on Election Day—or participate in early voting where it is available, or cast your ballot absentee. After all, unless you’re a political consultant, the point is to have as many people vote as possible, right?

“It is time to end the caucus system,” says Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, who writes the Election Law blog. “It has outlived its usefulness, and it is run by amateurs. Turnout is low, and they are no longer the site for meaningful deliberation.”

Look, I love the romantic notion that comes with the caucuses—neighbors meeting town-hall style in gyms, firehouses, and living rooms, making the case for the candidate they like best, engaging in not just civic participation, but civic persuasion. It is grassroots democracy at its best, Norman Rockwell–style.

But that romantic vision is colliding with reality, and the results are both ugly and impactful. At the very least, we need a digital means of transmitting the votes from each caucus precinct to the state GOP headquarters on election night, minimizing human error. It is nothing short of insane that the vote total in eight Iowa caucus precincts will never be known because they have been lost.

“The dog ate my homework” doesn’t work in second grade—it shouldn’t work when picking a president in the 21st century.

But some experts are calling for more wholesale reform.

“It is time to end the caucus system,” says Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, who writes the Election Law Blog. “It has outlived its usefulness, and it is run by amateurs. Turnout is low, and they are no longer the site for meaningful deliberation.”

The Iowa and Maine mistakes this time only add credibility to the call, and Professor Hasen is quick to point out that problems dogged the 2008 caucuses as well.

In essence, the hyperlocalized nature leads to idiosyncratic rules and combined with human error end up undercutting the basic promise of one man/one vote.

It also compounds the problem of polarization by making it more difficult for a center-right candidate to rise in the early states, because they spend months auditioning before an Iowa caucus electorate that is 88 percent conservative and 60 percent evangelical—in a state where registered independents outnumber Republicans or Democrats.

In addition, the current compact calendar makes it more difficult for candidates to adjust for caucus mistakes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan won 49.6 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote after losing the Iowa caucus to George H.W. Bush in large part because he had a month to regroup and make his case to local voters. Now there is just a week between the two, and Mitt Romney was seen as the winner going into the Granite State, despite the small fact that it wasn’t true.

We are way overdue for fundamental election reform in America. Open primaries and redistricting reform—currently being screwed up in a state near you—would be important steps in healing the harsh but artificial polarization of American politics. We should also have a serious civic conversation about more wholesale reformation of the presidential primary process, such as having 10 states—representing different regions and populations—vote one month apart for five months, until a nominee is picked. This might inspire better general-election candidates to make the calculated risk that comes with running for president.

Likewise, we should take a good look at general-election reforms like the Fair Elections Act proposal that would lead to a national popular vote, removing the archaic process of the Electoral College. These are just a few ideas that deserve a hearing.

The goal we should all be able to agree upon is increased participation and a more open process that produces more representative candidates. But the two parties often stubbornly stand in the way of reforms for no better reason than this is the way it has always been done. The status quo has reflexive defenders, but these rules were made by men and women, and they can be replaced when they have lived past their logic or usefulness. At the very least, the caucuses have been put on notice.