The first time I caucused–back in 1972, in Missouri–I thought we had started a wonderful, participatory, democratic revolution. Smoke-filled back rooms were out. We the people were in. The format back then was essentially the same as what I saw this year in Iowa: People signed in, congregated with others who backed this candidate or that, and were counted. But it didn’t take long to realize that the format violated at least one sacred, democratic principle: the secret ballot. Man, I really hated that. Even though I was not ashamed to caucus for my guy [was it McGovern? I can’t remember any more], I knew there was something off about the lack of privacy–and the resulting vulnerability to pressure from other candidates’ zealots.
And from what I saw via CSPAN’s coverage of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, that has not changed.
At least Iowa Republicans got to vote on folded slips of paper. But that procedure did not exempt them from other un-democracy-like system flaws. In the precinct I watched on CPAN, caucusers received pre-printed ballots. In other precincts, though, they simply wrote their preference on a blank slip of paper, running the risk that illegible handwriting could disenfranchise them.
Then, there’s that whole pesky business of counting: At Republican caucuses, we saw slips of paper dropping to the floor; counters stacking ballots into unlabeled piles, or tossing them into popcorn buckets with candidates’ names scrawled on them. In the chaotic Democratic precinct I observed on C-SPAN, it took more than an hour just to figure out how many eligible people were in the room. Then, when the Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and uncommitted groups crowded together, they were counted by a finger-pointing operative. At the end of the counting, numbers were tossed around, added, subtracted, revised and ultimately decided upon by committee. Accountability? Personal responsibility? Fuh-geddabout-it.
Iowa Dems and Republicans are said to treasure the down-homey-ness of it, the historical quaintness, and the sense of community and small-townish-ness, where everybody gets together for a good old electoral hoe-down. But it’s all faux nostalgia for an America that never really was. And it’s not working for America today.
It’s not only the internal procedures that are undemocratic. There’s a meta problem here, too. A more participatory process for nominating candidates is a heckuva lot better than the old party-boss way, no doubt. But the weight given to three mostly rural and very conservative states–Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina–by the parties and by the media–unfairly skews the political debate toward issues outside of mainstream–and, in particular, urban–America. For the months-long runup to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, we heard almost nothing about Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Flint Michigan, or Baltimore police brutality, because people who care about those issues don’t caucus in Iowa–so who cares. So much for government for and by the people.
It’s also extremely undemocratic to make it impossible for so many potential caucus-ers to express their preferences. Even the worst-offending states in the voting-rights realm haven’t tried to restrict voting to a two-hour window on only one night of the year. At least, in regular elections, voters can cast absentee ballots, or show up before or after work, or on lunch hour. But the norm for caucuses is vastly more restrictive: If you’re not in the door by 7:00 pm on caucus night, you are excluded. If you do care about who might lead your party, but you’re working two jobs and can’t afford to miss a shift, that’s just too bad for you. You don’t count. And as the over-valued Iowa caucus sets the presidential election in motion, the train has left the station without you.
For me, the bottom line is this: We live in a country whose politicians and citizens love to brag about being “the best in the world.” We continually lay claim to having the world’s largest and most successful democracy. It’s a political axiom to point with pride to the power and worldwide influence of the United States–and many politicians and military leaders have a penchant for wanting to spread “democracy” to other nations.
How are we supposed to spread “democracy” when we’re doing such a crappy job of running our own? And shouldn’t we be embarrassed that we go about choosing the leaders of such a “great” country via such a haphazard and undemocratic process?
[There are better ways. To read more about alternatives to our current primary/caucus system, click here.]