BIDLACK: Are Colorado’s caucuses a good thing or a bad thing? Or neither?

Author: Hal Bidlack - March 9, 2018 - Updated: March 9, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

How did you spend last Tuesday evening? If you were one of the 23,168 Democrats who showed up at schools, meeting halls, and other spaces around Colorado, you know where you were. You were participating in an unusual (only 13 states and two US territories use them) process to start off the progression of events that will end up with names on the ballot come next November. If you are a Republican, some of you may have been out Tuesday night as well, but state GOP didn’t hold an official poll, nor do they report turnout results.

Our Colorado secretary of state has just over 1 million registered Democrats in the database, along with just under 1 million Republicans, and slightly more unaffiliated voters than either party. So, if I do the math correctly to try to figure out roughly how many people participated in the caucus…carry the one…not too many.

The rules of the caucus process very from state to state, and here in Colorado, there are two ways in which candidates can end up on the primary ballot next June. For Dems (Republicans may do it differently), there are three levels of voting activity to get to the primary. The very first of these steps is the caucus, which elects delegates to the county-level “assembly” (think mini-convention) that then, in turn, selects delegates to the state convention. And that is where the rubber hits the road. If a candidate gets 30% or more of the votes of those attending the state convention, she or he gets on the primary ballot. If you don’t get 30% at the event, there is another path, gathering the required number of signatures from Colorado voters.

So, are caucuses a good thing or a bad thing? Or neither?

Well, of course, it depends. Those who support the caucus process remind us of the important early roots of the system, akin to the famous New England Town Hall, where those interested in supporting a particular candidate, or to remain uncommitted, gather in the evening to discuss and debate. In the Dem caucus, for example, there is a straw poll, then discussion by anyone who wishes to speak in support of a candidate or in remaining uncommitted, and then a formal vote is taken. Culturally, this is the interesting part, as people are invited to go to different corners of the room to cluster with those supporting the same candidate, and they are then again counted. This feels very American, with our fellow citizens engaging in the most basic level of citizen advocacy. I’ve enjoyed the caucuses I’ve attended, and I suspect that both Dems and the GOP folks who attend walk out feeling just a bit more red, white, and blue-ish.

But there are also significant problems with the caucus process. Unlike mechanisms like primaries, the caucus tends to be a zero-sum game – either you attend, or you don’t. There are no absentee ballots for those who might be out of town or overseas. There are no proxies for people who work in the evening, or for whom childcare or other reasons make attending an event on a weekday evening problematic. As a result, you tend to get a group of folks who skew older (for example, I turn 60 next week) and retired. Not that there is anything wrong with older folks (did I mention my turning 60?  Editor: Yes, get on with it!), but you likely get a different feel for the evening than you would with young parents, night workers, and others — in other words a more diverse group.

These issues are all less significant for Colorado voters, as the petition system serves as a backup for candidates, but when we look at it on a national scale, it is not quite as clear that the caucus process is best. And the obvious example is, of course, Iowa. The good people of Iowa use a caucus system to decide their delegations to the national political conventions, which means the same worries that I mentioned above are not influencing matters at a county or state level, but rather the national. In Iowa, it comes down to who can get the most folks to show up, and as we know, the Iowa caucus has a significant impact on our ultimate presidential candidate choices.

And so, I’ll come clean – I’m not a big supporter of the caucus system, unless you are from Azerbaijan (a geography joke!).

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.