In the last few weeks, the Keystone Kops have taken over the Republican presidential caucuses. First Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by a scant eight votes, and then Republican Party officials in Iowa said that there were so many local reporting problems that a winner could not be declared even though Rick Santorum was 34 votes ahead. Oops, they declared Santorum the winner anyway. In Nevada, Republican officials decided to hold a special late-night session of their Saturday caucus to accommodate Orthodox Jews and Seventh-day Adventists. This caused an uproar when Ron Paul supporters objected to requiring the late-comers to sign a statement that their religious obligations prevented earlier attendance, saying that people who had to work during the day should have the right to vote at the late-night caucus, too. Adding to the tumult, it took election officials in one Nevada county an extra day to count a small number of votes and deal with a “trouble box” of disputed ballots. Now comes news from Maine that Mitt Romney may not have won the Maine caucuses by 200 votes as initially reported, because some ballots have gone uncounted.
All of this is an embarrassment for the GOP, but it’s not a Republican problem. Four years ago, I wrote a Slate column describing the problems with the Democratic caucuses as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battled for their party’s nomination: That time around, in the Iowa caucuses voters had no right to cast a secret ballot; and in the Nevada caucuses rural votes counted more than urban ones. Hillary Clinton got more popular votes in the state than Barack Obama did, but got 12 delegates to Obama’s 13. Then came Texas-sixed problems with that state’s hybrid primary-caucus: long lines, unclear rules, the tailing of an election official to a police station when she took home caucus sign-in sheets to “correct” them, and even reports of three physical confrontations at Dallas caucus sites. Clinton got more votes in the primary, but Obama got more delegates because he got more votes in the caucuses.
None of this should actually be a surprise. This country has a hard enough time with competently run elections when professional election administrators are in charge. Caucuses are run by political party volunteers once every four years, without the normal safeguards (for example, while the GOP has supported voter identification laws, they were not required for the Republican Party caucuses). Without adequate procedures for ensuring that votes are properly cast, counted, and audited, a drumbeat of mistakes is inevitable.
Caucuses hark back to an earlier era, when they were a way for the parties to organize and provided a space for small-scale deliberations about which candidate deserved support. A deliberative process seemed especially appropriate in Iowa, where voters get to see the candidates up close and serve as proxies (supposedly) for the rest of us.
But none of these rationales any longer make sense. Parties organize more effectively through conventions, voter registration drives, and get-out-the-vote efforts than by serving as amateur vote-counters twice a decade. Caucuses are now a place for aggregating votes, not for real deliberation. Mostly people just come and vote. In fact NPR’s Bryan Naylor reports that Iowa would like to use voting machines in the next round of caucuses—it’s just that they’re worried that New Hampshire, with its first-in-the-nation primary, will squawk.