Members Only | February 4, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Face It, Time to Abolish Caucuses

The Iowa mess will be cleaned up, but we need real reform.

Share this article

We don’t know the outcome of the Iowa Democratic caucus. The app required for reporting the results of over 1,700 precincts malfunctioned. Precinct captains resorted to calling a hotline that was quickly overwhelmed. Here are a few initial thoughts.

  • First and foremost: Technological and human error are to blame, not some secret bad-faith scheme to deny a candidate the glory of victory. When the stakes are high, and emotions run as high, bone-headed mistakes can take on the face of conspiracy. While I understand the temptation to identify malevolent actors, Occam’s Razor says structural flaws or incompetence are the correct analysis. Importantly, let’s remember this is a democracy. Let’s not sow doubts and foment suspicions about a system of republican government we all want to see endure.

  • Everyone needs to chill. Each precinct captain knows the results of his or her precinct. They are written down, on paper, with witnesses available to verify them. That’s the upside to caucuses. Everything is public. The only unknown is what the aggregate statewide caucus results are. That’s just a matter of time. So everyone, please take a time-out. That goes double for a national press corps that has made a fetish of Iowa and its quirky ways of doing the people’s business.

  • Don’t believe the hype. The candidates have good reason to declare victory, or hint at declaring victory, before the official results are known. But don’t make too much of it. Those reasons are political. They are not empirical. They are not an indicator of the health of a certain kind of democratic process. Each candidate wants to give the impression that he or she has “the momentum” going into New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary. Each candidate wants the national press corps to talk about them as if they really did have momentum.

  • No one is going to have “the momentum. Unless the winner prevails by double-digit percentage points, all talk of momentum is fictional. That, however, doesn’t prevent people from talking about it. There is something about the American brain that desires a clear leader in the race for the presidency. We want clarity for what is an inherently messy democratic process the way we want instant gratification after buying sneakers on Amazon Prime. If anything is an indicator of the ill health of our democracy, it’s this obsession with knowing right now.

Amanda Carpenter said the Democrats did what the Russians would have done, creating conditions ripe for conspiracy theory. “Donald Trump couldn’t have asked for better circumstances to weave a conspiracy theory if he tried,” she wrote today in The Bulwark. That sounds convincing, another reason the Democrats are in disarray. But come on. We know this president doesn’t predicate public statements on the truth or falsehood of news events. Indeed, we all know this president would invent some conspiracy theory out of whole cloth even if the Iowa caucuses ran like clockwork.

The Democrats need a national primary day.

This isn’t to say the Iowa Democrats shouldn’t be embarrassed. They should sooper embarrassed. But we should be honest, too. Caucuses are relics of 19th century America. They exclude modern voters more than they include them. I think Senator Dick Durbin is right: “The Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting.”

But let’s not stop there. Let’s get rid of all caucuses and single-state primaries. My friend David Perry recommends the following and I think he’s just about right:

  1. National primary in July with ranked choice voting to ensure a winner.

  2. Conventions in September.

  3. General election in November.

These are drastic reforms, but they have much to offer. One primary would mean:

  • Iowa and New Hampshire, which are very white, would not have as much national influence on a multi-racial and multi-cultural political party.

  • The sequence of states would no longer be relevant. Imagine all the talk of “momentum” just disappearing! Imagine “electability” being forgotten!

  • Adversarial nations, like Russia and China and Iran, would have fewer opportunities to spread disinformation during that sequence. The impact of their propaganda and lies would be limited to one day’s outcome, not several in a row.

  • It would be truly democratic in that people would be voting for their presidential nominee, not states. “One person, one vote” would be well and truly realized.

  • Most importantly, the national press corps would focus on a single day that mattered, instead of hyping the run-up to a state that usually doesn’t matter.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.