Last night, the Nevada caucuses got off to a raucous start. Ballots ran out. Allegations of multiple voting arose. Partisans ran ballot collection and counting operations. Officials sported shirts proclaiming their candidate allegiance (and not just for Donald Trump). In one case, the caucus didn’t actually materialize where advertised:
New: People registered for precinct 1303 in Sierra Vista showed up to caucus. There was literally no site set up.
— Elaina Plott (@elainaplott) February 24, 2016
Marc Caputo professed amazement:
Not enough ballots for some
No checking voter IDs
A poll worker wearing pro-Trump swag
These allegations about #Nevadacaucus are just wow
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) February 24, 2016
Welcome to the caucuses! A number of people on Twitter pointed out that their home states would never allow such politicking in voting locations. One intrepid researcher tweeted out Nevada statute forbidding it as well — but those statutes apply to state-run elections, not caucuses. Caucuses are private events run by the political parties, and as such they set the rules and run the show. Badly, as it turns out in this case, but Nevada is hardly alone in that.
That’s why caucuses are a bad idea. They are a nineteenth-century anachronism, one that should have been retired decades ago in favor of primaries for allocating delegates for presidential nominations.
Even when run reasonably well, caucuses are significantly inferior to primaries. State-run primaries have polls open all day, giving every voter a reasonable chance to cast a vote, and allowing for absentee voting for even broader participation. Caucuses are held at a particular time, which means that anyone who can’t make that meeting time can’t participate in their state’s selection of major-party contenders for the presidency.
The voting process in a primary is far superior. There is more oversight over voter identification and much better privacy protection for the ballots. Ballot counting either takes place electronically or under the supervision of all interested parties, or both. Even better yet, when races run close, primaries allow for effective ballot recounts, whereas caucuses do not.
A few people argued last night that Iowa knows how to run caucuses, and that the big problem in Nevada and other states has been a lack of preparation. While it’s true that Iowa has more expertise, the system itself is still flawed, as we saw in 2012 for Republicans and just three weeks ago for Democrats. In both cases, tight results highlighted irregularities in the counting and reporting processes, leading to weeks of uncertainty. The Des Moines Register called for “a complete audit of the results” from the Democratic caucuses in the wake of numerous irregularities cited by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, specifically in the counting of the ballots — which could not be recounted, thanks to the caucus system.
State-run elections aren’t perfect, either. Believe me, we know that better in Minnesota than most (although we too have a caucus system for the presidential primary). However, there is more oversight, better infrastructure, much broader access, and statutory law governing the election system, while the caucus system falls short in all regards.
Thankfully, the results in Nevada were so dramatic that even the irregularities cannot overshadow the Trump domination last night, but not every caucus will produce those kinds of lopsided results — as Iowa’s Democratic caucuses demonstrated earlier this month. Both the RNC and DNC would do well to insist that each state hold primaries rather than caucuses for delegate allocation, and those who refuse to do so can hold their events at the end of the primary calendar. The circus that erupted in Nevada and the failure to achieve confidence in the results of Iowa for the second cycle in a row tells us it’s time to put the nineteenth century to bed.