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caucus

Photo Credit: James Brooks/ Flickr


Contradicting election results have become a common trend in recent American politics. The Iowa Caucus for the Democratic primary on Feb. 3 was the latest inconsistent election: Bernie Sanders won the popular vote by almost 6,000 individual votes in the state of Iowa, while Pete Buttigieg was declared the winner of the caucus because of his lead over Sanders in State Delegate Equivalents by just two delegates. The fundamental principle that the individual with the most votes should be crowned the victor has not reigned true in the United States, and particularly chaotic electoral disasters have reignited this central tension. The United States should fulfill the basic promise of its democracy and hold elections that actually represent the will of the people.

The Iowa Caucus for the Democratic primary faced horrendous mismanagement and dreadful reporting methods through a newly developed app. Technological and administrative errors aside, the discrepancy between Sanders’ popular vote victory and Buttigieg’s delegate count victory point to the fundamental problem of the Iowa Caucuses and others like it.

These political fossils — much like the electoral college itself — are antithetical to the American project of democracy and should be abandoned in favor of electoral mechanisms of direct democracy. 

Besides Iowa, six other U.S. states and territories use caucuses to cast their votes in the presidential nominating process: Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. After the 2016 presidential election, 10 states which had previously held caucuses to vote in the presidential nominating process opted to instead employ primaries for the 2020 election cycle. Caucuses represent an outdated, undemocratic system — one whose end in American politics should be welcomed.

Caucuses exclude participation at a greater degree than primaries do. The commitment to participate in a caucus is much higher than that of a primary. Individuals must spend several hours attending the often day-long affairs. During those hours, participants must abide by caucus rules in order to adhere to the procedures for assembling into first-round groups and subsequent second-round groups based on viability rankings. The process is not a simple, individual vote as is the case with presidential primaries.

Consequently, this system places a high bar for participation in the caucus and significantly disadvantages voters who are not able to make the serious time commitment because of work, family affairs, or other time constraints. Those privileged enough to have the free time to participate in the caucus are therefore strongly advantaged in caucuses over the general public.

Especially in the United States, where voter turnout is consistently low, it makes little sense to raise the bar for participation to such unnecessary and demanding standards. So much of our current political moment concerns the mobilization of the full American electorate. Vote100 represents Princeton’s campaign to ensure full voter turnout among its student population given the historically low percentage of voter turnout among college students across America. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 18 percent of college students voted. In short, the American electorate must be expanded, and individuals must be consistently inspired and energized to vote and become a part of the political process rather than forfeit their vital civic duty.

When so many Americans do not even have the time to vote in presidential elections or other electoral contests because of working hours and the lack of election day as a holiday, requiring even more of a time commitment for caucuses further prevents participation in our democracy.

But caucuses also involve highly public interactions and procedures in which voters must make their political decisions known to all. According to most caucus procedures, voters must choose which groups to join and which candidate to support in full view of all others at the caucus site. If a candidate does not become viable in that they don’t amass enough group members in the first-round stage, voters must also decide which group to move to in public.

While this is theoretically a mainstay of our political system — the exchange of ideas and the value of meaningful debate for political progress — what tends to occur in presidential caucuses is a form of peer pressure. Voters might feel pressured or unusually nudged to make certain decisions and support certain candidates because of the public element of the decision-making process.

The secret ballot and the privacy afforded to voters to make their own authentic choice has been a hallmark of American elections for over a century. By infusing this extremely public aspect of caucus-going, these mechanisms of the presidential nominating process unnecessarily complicate the vote and allow for the negative influence of social forces in what should be a solemn, individual casting of the vote.

Caucuses also have the possibility of subverting the will of the people. Because they are not counted through a means of direct democracy as primaries are, caucuses present possibilities for discrepancies between the popular vote and caucus vote. Just like what happened in the most recent Iowa Caucuses, the caucus as a mechanism of the presidential nominating process can make for serious errors.

Free and fair elections should be a hallmark of American democracy, but outdated institutions like the electoral college and caucuses serve as a hindrance towards fulfilling this ideal. This Saturday, the Nevada Caucuses will be the third major Democratic contest in the primary. With the abysmal situation in Iowa, all eyes will be on Nevada to ensure that no such chaos ensues again. But, beyond the short-term guarantee of a contest where the results are produced in a clear and accurate fashion, our current political moment is presenting us with the opportunity to reassess our democratic institutions. The caucus has outlived its time as a mainstay of the American political system — it is time to abolish the caucus as a step in the selection of the highest office in the land.

By failing to ensure direct democracy thrives in our elections, the United States is turning away from the promise of free and fair elections. Certain voters are undemocratically provided more weight in the process, and the fundamental principle of a popular democracy is neglected in some instances when the popular vote is denied victory.

Kaveh Badrei is a senior Woodrow Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at kbadrei@princeton.edu.

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