Kill the Caucuses!
Maine, Nevada, and Iowa were embarrassing. It’s time to make primaries the rule.
Turnout in caucuses can be abysmally low. Fewer than 40,000 people voted in the 2012 Nevada Republican caucus. Compare that to the 412,000 voters who voted for John McCain in the 2008 general election in Nevada. Maine’s caucus turnout last week was only about 3 percent, according to the Washington Post, “Out of 6,755 registered Republican voters, 223 showed up to vote in Portland.” Since you have to hang around to vote, busy people don’t show up and many members of the military are disenfranchised.
Finally, caucuses make less sense now that campaigns for president have become more national in scope, and voter preferences about candidates shaped less by living room chats and more by negative ads run by a candidate’s shadow super PAC. As campaigns become less retail, there’s no reason to burden voters who want to help choose a presidential nominee with the extra demands of a caucus.
How to get rid of the caucuses? For reasons I’ve explained, I don’t expect the Supreme Court to step in and rule the caucus process unconstitutional. Parties don’t have to use a one-person, one-vote rule to choose their nominees, and they could probably get away with just about anything short of race discrimination in running their nomination processes. As Justice Antonin Scalia recently wrote for a seven-justice Supreme Court majority, "A political party has a First Amendment right to limit is membership as it wishes, and to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce the nominee who best represents its political platform."
But the Supreme Court also has said "it is too plain for argument" that states can require parties to use primaries or conventions rather than caucuses or smoke-filled rooms to pick nominees who appear on the general election ballot. And Congress might be able to go further. An important article by Justice Scalia, written before he took the bench, bolsters the case that the Constitution gives Congress has the power to regulate aspects of the presidential nominations process.
Congress should take the court up on its offer and scrap the caucuses. And while they’re at it, how about taking away Iowa and New Hampshire’s status as first in the nation in choosing the president as well? There have been a number of fairer proposals, such as a series of rotating regional presidential primaries, giving each part of the country its turn to go first. Iowa and New Hampshire won’t go down without a fight. But there is no reason these two states should always get millions of dollars worth of extra attention from presidential candidates.
Amateur hour is over. The choice of a president is simply too important to put in the hands of party bumblers and the small percentage of people who are willing to spend hours to cast a vote. Let’s have primaries—and then figure out how to make sure all those voting machines work properly.
Richard L. Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the U.C. Irvine School of Law and author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. He also writes the Election Law Blog.