These Caucuses Suck

Bernie Sanders won big in Nevada, so hardly any members of the news media herd are focused on how bad the caucus process was (just like in Iowa earlier this month). How about using secret ballots instead?

From Stephen Stromberg of The Washington Post:

Unlike in Iowa, it did not take long to declare a winner in Saturday’s Nevada Democratic caucuses. That doesn’t mean the system worked well — it didn’t. Nevada looked orderly only because Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s victory was so lopsided, the networks could call the race with hardly any results.

Some 18 hours after the caucuses wrapped up, results were in from only about half of the state’s precincts — the consequence of cumbersome rules, a jammed reporting hotline and extensive data collection requirements. This mess is what happens when [political] parties insist on running their own private caucuses rather than allowing states to hold primary elections. Indeed, even if the caucuses had worked more smoothly, they would still have been an embarrassing spectacle. They are a terrible way to choose a presidential nominee.

The process I don’t like at all,” said Paul Anthony, a food server attending a caucus Saturday at the Bellagio resort. “I think sometimes this room might intimidate people into not wanting to come vote.”

The Nevada Democratic Party might be surprised at Anthony’s dissatisfaction, given that it tried hard this year to fix its caucus system, offering people more ways to participate. But the party instead proved that the caucus system is fundamentally flawed. One major reason: Peer pressure should have no place in voting.

For all their effort, Nevada Democrats could not fix this inherent problem: There was no secret ballot. At the Bellagio caucus, hotel shift workers had to walk to one side of a large, open conference room, amid a crowd of coworkers, to express their presidential preference. After an initial count, those favoring candidates who had garnered little support could move to a different group. These realigning caucus-goers had to walk to another part of the room with all eyes trained on them, colleagues beckoning them to their side.

It is tempting to make nice with your coworkers, stay with the crowd and avoid sticking out. It is only human to want to satisfy the campaign organizers who may have chatted with you on your way in, who are now observing from the wings. It is all too easy to note the presence of the Culinary Workers Union official attending the caucus…. It is natural to be a little freaked out by television cameras recording your every alignment and realignment.

The campaigns were allowed to have observers on site as long as they were few and quiet, so as to minimize pressure on caucus participants. The Sanders observers were instead many and loud. They packed the corner reserved for caucus observers, cheering, waving at caucus-goers, pumping their fists into the air. After the first count showed strong support for the Vermont senator, one Sanders campaign staffer cried. During the realignment, when it was perhaps most important for them to let the caucus participants make their choices absent outside urging, they chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” and pointed toward the Sanders side of the room… Sanders surrogate Gilbert Cedillo interrupted a caucus-goer’s speech when he clapped abruptly at the mention of Medicare-for-all.

Don’t scorn Cedillo or any of the other Sanders supporters. They showed up because they are passionate. Blame a system that allowed them into a room where everyday people were just trying to express their preference for who should be the Democratic presidential nominee — a room that did not have a single ballot booth.

The only sensible defense of caucuses is that they allow people to shift their support to a second-choice candidate if their first choice is not viable. But Nevada — and every other caucus state — could offer voters this flexibility through a ranked-choice voting system like the one that Maine has used, without accepting all the built-in problems of caucusing. Let people — in secret — submit a shortlist of candidates in the order of their preference. In fact, the Nevada Democratic Party introduced this year a version of ranked-choice voting for people who wanted to caucus early, the results of which were meshed with the live caucus results obtained Saturday. The party could simply ditch the old system and move entirely to the new one. It would be much fairer….

Voting should not be a performance. No one should feel intimidated, as Anthony rightly worried. Everyone should be able to lie to their coworkers about who they support — or decline to say — and save their authentic opinion for the seclusion of the ballot booth. Anything else is indefensible.

Unquote.

Twenty-four hours after the caucuses began, the Post has results from 50% of the precincts. At least one campaign is questioning how the early voting results were integrated into the caucus results. This is a mess that the national Democratic Party needs to fix. They have two years before the next national election. That is enough time to get it right and eliminate these stupid, undemocratic caucuses.