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Primaries versus caucuses: The score so far in 2016

Unfair! Rigged! Corrupt!

We’re hearing a lot of harsh adjectives being applied to aspects of the presidential nominating system this year — from “double-agent” delegate placement on the Republican side that may frustrate the plurality of GOP voters, to the establishment-based superdelegates (fully 15% of the convention, though down from 19% in 2008) on the Democratic side.

Americans are being reminded that we’re a republic in our politics and our government. The nation isn’t a pure democracy in or out of the nominating season. Parties adopt rules that restrict access to non-party members in many states, for example. The general election for president is less democratic and straightforward than in many countries because of an Electoral College that can disregard the national popular vote while giving extra weight to lightly populated states. Once the election season is past, we are governed in part by a Senate that isn’t apportioned based on population and an unelected Supreme Court that can overrule the elected federal branches.

Back to our current political marathon: Both major parties reflect republican principles in the diverse hodgepodge of procedures that make up the presidential nomination process (particularly on the Republican side). It is American federalism at its best or worst, depending on your point of view, and this year, in the candidate you support. Voters that back Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders find fault with the prevailing systems, but supporters of Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton may see virtue in the arrangements.

Almost all states have either a primary or a caucus to begin the process of choosing the actual delegates to the summer nominating convention. In 2016, the two parties will use almost the same number of total primaries and caucuses in their nomination processes: Republicans have primaries in 39 states and territories and caucuses in 17 more, and Democrats have 39 primaries and 18 caucuses. (Note the number of caucuses includes variants that are not primaries, such as the convention by Republicans in Washington, D.C.) Moreover, most state parties use conventions held at the district and/or state levels to choose the actual human beings who serve as national convention delegates; in most cases, they are pledged for one ballot to a candidate depending on the election results in their respective states, though that candidate may not be the person the actual delegate personally supports.

As a matter of participation, it matters considerably whether a state or territory uses a primary or a caucus. So far this year, in the 22 states where both parties have held primaries, the combined turnout of registered voters has been a reasonably healthy 36.1%. But in the eight states where both parties have used caucuses instead of primaries, just 11.3% of registered voters have cast a ballot.

Take a minute to study the accompanying table compiled by my colleague Geoffrey Skelley and UVA Center for Politics interns Alix Glynn and Erik Hames. All the contests so far are included, state by state. Nine states have seen registered voter turnouts over 40% (both parties, combined), topped by Wisconsin’s stellar 62.2% and New Hampshire’s admirable 53.3%. Then there are four states whose two-party caucus total turnout is under 7% of the registered (Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Maine, which is moving toward holding a primary in 2020). Even those laggards look good compared to Democratic caucus turnout in Nebraska (2.9%) and Republican convention turnout in D.C. (0.7%). The only caucuses with turnout even close to that of the lowest primaries were lead-off state Iowa’s with 17.1% and Utah’s with 17.6%.

Table 1: 2016 primary/caucus turnout

Notes: In the methods columns, “P” signifies primary and “C” signifies caucus. Colorado and Wyoming Republicans held precinct caucuses but held no presidential preference vote, thus why they are marked “N/A.” “TBD” signifies that one party has not voted yet. Vote totals have not been finalized in all states.

Sources: This table was compiled using a variety of sources, including state election officials, state parties, and state election websites. Click here for the data and specific sources.

If voter participation were the only criterion, it would be easy to argue that all states should hold primaries. However, it is not that simple a choice. The debate about nominating methods is an old one, and good arguments can be marshaled by advocates of each.

The large gap in voter participation is very significant, and brings into focus the stark differences between primaries and caucuses. Primaries broaden participation and are far more inclusive, allowing voters from all walks of life to cast a ballot with minimal effort. Absentee balloting for those who are away on business or in nursing homes, plus early voting that includes military personnel serving abroad, are provided for in the primary voting system but not in most caucuses.

At the same time, caucuses are a tougher test for candidates, putting a premium on the organization they assemble and enthusiasm they generate. Only party regulars or dedicated followers will show up for a caucus that can consume the better part of an evening or a Saturday. Politicians have to rely on more face-to-face campaigning for caucuses, while impersonal TV ads are a bigger factor in primaries.

This year a few caucus states such as Iowa established limited forms of absentee voting and televised caucus site balloting. But no one would claim an equivalency between these minimal efforts and the full-scale, time-tested absentee and early voting procedures in primary states.

We admit a bias toward primaries, yet it goes too far to call for complete caucus abolition. There are advantages to the extra scrutiny that caucuses can give. Additionally, it’s not unreasonable to allow party activists — the people who devote untold hours to maintaining the party’s superstructure — a prominent role in the candidate screening process, especially in places where this is traditional and preferred.

Yet at a minimum, caucus states should be required by the parties or state law to make extensive efforts to include soldiers, the ill and infirm, and those who must be working or traveling during the designated caucus time. Some early, absentee balloting is simply essential to any basic notion of fairness.

Even with reforms, the giant gap in voter participation between primaries and caucuses cannot be bridged. Why not have each caucus state hold a separate primary? Occasionally, state parties have done just this — such as Texas Democrats, whose “Texas Two-Step” was done away with before 2016, or Washington Republicans, who used both a caucus and a primary in some prior cycles. Some proportion of the delegates can be picked or apportioned by the caucus and the rest by the primary. This hybrid could combine the benefits of each nominating system. This would apply to Iowa, too. To satisfy “first-in-the-nation” New Hampshire, a primary state, Iowa has to choose a caucus — but the Hawkeye State could stage a separate primary later in the calendar.

States or parties that only want to have one event should be required to choose a primary. But with a double-barreled caucus and primary, state parties that insist on sponsoring a caucus can generate the money, voter lists, and candidate face-time they desire in a caucus, while maximizing the public’s opportunity to work its democratic will via a primary.

Two bites at the apple can be better than one. If the presidential nominating system is to become more representative of each party’s electorate, then more primaries are part of the answer.