The real undemocratic threat: The caucus

While the dumpster fire that is the Republican primary burns unabated, the Democratic primary continues toward its inexorable conclusion. Despite some turbulence in the past couple of weeks, Hillary Clinton notched a 16-point victory over Bernie Sanders in New York and, unless Republicans manage to find another email scandal, she continues to be on track to win her party’s nomination.

Math can be cruel, however, and Sanders’ failure to pull ahead of Clinton has led to claims that the nomination is being rigged for Clinton. The culprits are superdelegates, who are made up of Democratic party leaders and are not obligated to support any candidate — and who overwhelmingly support Clinton. Sanders’ supporters hold up Wyoming as a prime example, where Sanders beat Clinton by just over 10 points, but because of support from superdelegates, Clinton took home more delegates overall.

To understand how this can happen, it is first important to understand the Democratic primary process. For a candidate to win the Democratic nomination for president, he or she must win 2,383 delegates (a majority) of the total 4,765 delegates available. Of these, 4,051 are so-called “pledged” delegates, who are required to vote for a particular candidate depending on the state results. Pledged delegates in the Democratic primary are awarded proportionally, so essentially that means that if a candidate wins 55 percent of the state’s vote, they win 55 percent of the state’s pledged delegates.

The other 714 delegates are “unpledged,” or more commonly known by their Marvel Comics name, superdelegates. These delegates include Democratic officeholders and other party leaders. What’s key is that, unlike their pledged brethren, superdelegates are not obligated to support the popular vote winner — they can support whomever they want. Let’s say Debbie Stabenow, Democratic senator from Michigan and a superdelegate, decides that she can’t support Sanders because he only has one pair of clean underwear. So although Michigan voted 49-48 for Sanders, she can still support (and is supporting) Clinton, even as Sanders won a majority of her state’s pledged delegates.

This is what happened in Wyoming: The state’s pledged delegates split down the middle, with seven going to each candidate. But all four of Wyoming’s superdelegates backed Clinton, which gave her an overall 11-7 statewide delegate lead.

Naturally, Sanders supporters cried foul, decrying the process as undemocratic and unrepresentative. And they’re right: Superdelegates are inherently undemocratic. They give more voice to party leaders than regular voters, and that’s the whole point. Superdelegates were created to serve as a check on the capricious whims of the people by pumping the brakes on a Froot Loops nominee. Republicans, who are poised to nominate their own Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs candidate in Donald Trump, only wish they had superdelegates of their own.

It is easy to overstate the influence of superdelegates, though. They have never denied the leader in the delegate race from becoming the nominee. And if we take superdelegates out of the equation entirely, Clinton would still lead Sanders in both the number of pledged delegates and by more than 2 million votes.

So yes, superdelegates are an undemocratic institution, and one that at this point favors Clinton. That point is taken, and the process should be changed for future Democratic nominations. But Sanders and his supporters have been notably quiet about another unquestionably undemocratic aspect of the nomination process: the caucus.

The first thing to understand about a caucus is that, unlike a primary or general election, participants do not simply go to a voting booth, fill in a ballot, slap on an “I Voted” sticker and leave. Instead, Democratic voters meet up at some location, sometimes even a private residence of a party member. There is no secret ballot: Voters actively try to persuade, cajole, incentivize and pressure each other to support a particular candidate. Then they split up into groups, like a high school game of four corners, and an official physically counts the people in the group to arrive at a total. This total goes into the Magic Democrat Delegate Formula, which determines how many convention delegates a candidate receives, which itself then (in Iowa, at least) is converted into a separate, final number of state delegates.

If the process sounds long, confusing and outdated, it’s probably because the process is long, confusing and outdated, not to mention in violation of several United Nations recommendations for holding legitimate elections. Caucuses encourage brazen electioneering at the polling place, an act that is illegal in most of the world because it can make voters feel pressured into voting for a different candidate than their actual preference. That’s why a secret ballot is so important: It provides an opportunity for people to vote without having to worry about someone looking over their shoulders and guiding their pencil. At a caucus, though, voters are watched and recruited by dozens of other people. It’s impossible not to feel pressured in such a situation.

Additionally, because a voter has to stay at the caucus site for at least an hour to ensure their vote is counted, the caucus system gives more say to people who have the time on their hands to haggle over delegate allocation. If you’re a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet, you probably have better things to do than use your entire night arguing over whether Clinton or Sanders should get another delegate.

It should be no surprise, then, that caucuses are a recipe for dismal voter turnout. In this year’s primaries, 36 percent of eligible voters turned out. But in this year’s caucuses? Turnout has been a piddling 11 percent. A caucus can’t claim to be an accurate representation of voters if only one out of 10 voters actually shows up, and especially if those who do show are wealthier and whiter than Democratic voters as a whole. What does it say about a party that claims to stick up for working people if it has a voting system that actively disenfranchises voters who have to work for a living?

What’s more, caucuses have historically been a morass of negligence and mismanagement. Look no further than four years ago, when the 2012 Republican Iowa Caucuses featured no fewer than three separate winners depending on which day you asked. Mitt Romney was officially declared the victor on election night, but 16 days later, surprise! The state Republican Party declared that, oops, we goofed: Rick Santorum was the actual winner. Even after that egregious about-face, neither Romney nor Santorum actually won the most delegates — that dubious honor went to Ron Paul, who took just 21 percent of the vote, but nabbed 78 percent of the delegates through a combination of smart tactical maneuvering and shameless bribery. After the fact, the state party outright admitted that it er, misplaced, some votes, all while results from eight precincts never came in and irregularities were discovered in another 131. So much for “every vote matters.”

No single Democratic caucus has been as poorly managed as that single Republican one. That doesn’t mean that the process has been just peachy, however. A funny thing about caucuses is that the Democratic Party doesn’t require states to keep track of how many votes were cast. That’s right: We have no way of knowing exactly how many people voted for Clinton or Sanders in some caucuses because those state Democratic parties decided it wasn’t important enough to keep track — including Wyoming, where we can only estimate that “roughly 7,000” people came to the caucuses.

With all the furor over superdelegates, the truly undemocratic caucus system has gone largely ignored. (The fact that Sanders has done well in low-turnout caucuses is surely a coincidence.) This gross negligence has occurred, and continues to occur, because the state party, not the state government, organizes the caucus. As a result, there are no directly elected public officials to hold accountable. We wind up with a caucus system that privileges one group of voters over poorer voters of color. It is a system where corruption is rampant, where there is no safety of the voting booth and where people can pressure and berate you into voting a certain way.

So yes, let’s reform the Democratic nomination process and discuss and change the role of superdelegates. But we should also not blind ourselves to other places that need reform, and the most pressing of those is the caucus. We need to have a conversation about them too.

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