The Caucuses and the Right to Vote
By Jennifer L. Patin
April 28, 2016
Midway through the 2016 presidential election cycle, well-intentioned voters have been disenfranchised or impeded while trying to vote in the state caucuses. Hundreds of these voters called 866-OUR-VOTE to reach Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, with two common questions: Can I vote in the caucus? And How do I vote in the caucus?
So far, 15 states have held caucuses. The North Dakota Democratic Party and the District of Columbia Democratic Party will hold the last caucuses of the 2016 election cycle in June. This Election Protection brief, and accompanying interactive map, journey through the voter experience in some of the caucus states to help illustrate how caucus systems affect the fundamental right to vote.
Turnout, Representation, and Accessibility
Caucuses impact voters differently than primaries and work differently too. In presidential election years, the caucus method of voting consistently produces lower voter turnout than the primary election method of voting. So far in 2016, the average turnout for states with primaries is 32.4%, while the average turnout for caucuses is 9.9%. Looking at the first two nomination contests, Iowa caucus turnout was under 16%, whereas New Hampshire primary turnout was over 52%. The chart below details turnout for primaries and caucuses, to date, for states where both Democratic and Republican parties have reported turnout data. The comparisons are striking.
Even in 2008, when voter turnout was unprecedentedly high throughout the election cycle, turnout for state caucuses was lower than for primaries. For example, voter turnout of citizens under 30 years old in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was 13% compared to the 43% in New Hampshire’s 2008 primary.
Research also points out that voters who participate in caucuses are less representative of the electorate than voters who participate in primaries, with some studies suggesting that caucus voters are more ideologically extreme. In addition, advocates for workers, students, the elderly, the disabled, and military personnel claim that caucuses are less accessible than primaries because of the limited time frame to vote and the lack of absentee or early voting opportunities. Turnout, representation, and accessibility are major concerns in any democracy, and caucuses are found to suppress all three.
Primaries resemble the general election, while caucuses are distinctly different:
- The two major state political parties manage caucuses instead of the state and local government officials who supervise most other elections. In addition, state and local governments, as well as federal law, provide no guidance for how political parties should run caucuses.
- A state’s caucus rules and procedures can vary widely from election year to election year on the whim of state political party leaders.
- Voters are generally required to be physically present at caucuses; although various state parties have tested absentee and early voting and online voting. And in some caucuses, the in-person voter cannot cast a secret ballot.
- Generally, voters must be available during a narrowly scheduled time frame if they wish to participate in caucuses.
The Voter Experience
Election Protection’s tools and resources create opportunities for much more intimate interactions with voters than scholarly research allows. The 866-OUR-VOTE voter helpline was live for caucuses in Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, and Nebraska. On dates that 866-OUR-VOTE was not live, Election Protection volunteers returned voicemail about caucuses to voters in Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The experiences shared with us suggest that voters ultimately turn out at lower rates for caucuses because of the process’s complicated nature. On the contrary, the primary method of voting more closely aligns with the general election voting process, gives voters more time to get to the polls, and generally provides more opportunities for absentee and early voting.
Election Protection data show that in Colorado and Hawaii, out-of-town registered voters learned that they could not vote because their parties’ caucus rules did not allow absentee voting. In Nebraska and Nevada, voters were disenfranchised after missing the narrow window of time allotted to line up and participate in their caucuses. In Utah, where the Republican Party debuted an online caucus voting system, a voter was disenfranchised when the system failed. The stories mentioned here and in the map above give just snapshots of the larger caucus voter experience, thus far, in 2016.
Caucuses and Our Democracy
Election Protection advocates for a simplified voting process to help facilitate voter education and drive turnout. However, to fully comprehend the impact of caucuses on the right to vote, more research is needed. Are caucuses essential to our electoral process? Would replacing them with primaries improve turnout, representation, and accessibility? Do caucuses actually make voting harder, and if so, do they hold value in our democracy? Election Protection operates under the belief that every eligible citizen should be able to exercise their right to vote without difficulty, and we strongly encourage further analysis of the caucus system to determine whether it does more harm than good for our democracy.
Jennifer L. Patin is the Writer/Editor for the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.