As I'm writing this the Colorado Caucus has just opened its doors, and they are in the process of counting the votes in Minnesota, and in the non-binding Missouri Primary.
Most states use the primary system to cast votes in presidential elections. However, there are eleven states that use the caucus system for all parties, and three states that use it for one of the majority parties, but not both.1
For those that are confused by the caucus process, you're not alone. Most Americans scratch their head when asked exactly how it works. Basically, people from the party get together and then discuss things before voting. Once voting is completed they announce the vote for their precinct and that tally is passed on for the state convention.2 Honestly, it reminds me of what it must've looked like back at the time of the Founding Fathers.
But, that's the problem. While that may have worked when the population of the country was below 1 million, it's an outdated system when you're talking about states that have millions of people, and those people work all sorts of different schedules so they cannot necessarily make it to a particular time on a particular day. With few exceptions, caucuses usually see turnout below 10%.3 You'd be hard pressed to find a primary turnout at that low of a level.
What does it say for the caucus process when votes can be tallied on a notepad? To me it says you have such a low turnout that it has to question the cost of the process. The plus side is that those who show up to "caucus" get to also select who will represent them at the state convention, as opposed to the state party handing them out depending on party politics at the state level. Additionally, the state party generally pays for the caucus rather than the state as a whole.4
Frankly, I'd rather see all states go to a primary system so people can cast absentee ballots, which will cause more turnout.5 Additionally, I'd rather see a national primary date set for sometime in April. A national primary would not preclude having a whole bunch of debates as we have seen with the Republican presidential candidates this year and it would still give the national committees over two months to prepare for their national conventions.
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More troubling is what happened with last weekend's Nevada Republican Caucus, where it was decided to have a separate caucus for the Orthodox Jewish population of the state. This special caucus took place in Las Vegas and you had to sign a letter saying that you could not take part in the normal state caucus due to religious reasons. (Orthodox Jewish people are not supposed to work on the Sabbath, which is considered sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).
However, people supporting Ron Paul decided to attend this special caucus, even though they weren't necessarily prevented from attending the normal caucus due to religious reasons. As a result, Ron Paul received a vast majority of the votes as the special caucus, despite the state going to Mitt Romney overall. Additionally, a major Newt Gingrich financial backer chose to attend even though he had publicly said he was not an Orthodox Jew.6
This special caucus was arranged a month prior to the actual date of the caucus. There was no special caucus in 2008 even though it was also held on a Saturday. The 2004 Republican Caucus was held on a weekday, while the Democratic Caucus was held two weeks prior, on Saturday, January 21st. Again, with no special caucus.
My feeling is that if states are going to continue using the caucus system then then should plan ahead for contingencies like this. And in this circumstance, the date of the Nevada Caucus was moved to make sure it was held prior to the Florida moved it's primary.7 And was done quite some time ago.
Having special caucuses, due to religious reasons, starts moving us towards that slippery slope of supporting one religion over another. What would happen if a Christian group demanded a separate caucus due to religious reasons? Not as widely known, members of the 7th Day Adventist Church were also allowed to attend the special caucus as well, though they weren't the catalyst for it being established.
1 Answers.com, What states have presidential caucuses,
http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Which_states_have_presidential_caucuses (Feb. 06, 2012).
2,3 The Caucus System in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process,
http://www.cfr.org/united-states/caucus-system-us-presidential-nominating-process/p15640#p2 (Feb. 06, 2012).
4 What Happens at a Presidential Caucus,
http://www.ehow.com/video_4871897_happens-precinct-caucus_.html (Feb. 06, 2012).
5 Caucuses Will Still Lack Absentee Voting,
http://www.thenation.com/blog/165218/caucuses-will-still-lack-absentee-voting (February 06, 2012).
6 Special Nevada caucus participants sign religious declaration,
http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/02/05/3091525/special-nevada-caucus-participants-sign-religious-declaration (February 06, 2012).
7 Nevada Presidential Caucus Moved to January 14th,
http://www.nevadagop.org/nevada-presidenti%E2%80%8Bal-caucus-moved-to-january-14th/ (February 06, 2012).