Definition of a Caucus

There’s been some discussion of a do-over, an electoral mulligan, for the great clusterfuck of Michigan. And–in the ongoing debate whether Obama’s victories in caucus states are "real"–discussions about caucuses. As those two subjects potentially converge, I wanted to saw a few words about caucuses, in general, and caucuses in Michigan.

I agree with Lambert’s general dissatisfaction with caucuses:

However, the caucus system clearly disenfranchised several classes of people:

1. People who couldn’t get away from work, and since Maine is a state that’s both big, poor, and challenged by the weather in the winter, that’s a larger percentage than you might think;

2. People who have child care issues;

3. People with disabilities;

4. People without cars;

5. People who are elderly and/or sick.

When this season is over, the caucus system should be abolished everywhere, in favor of a system where all votes count equally.

And for all these reasons, I don’t think a caucus state should have first in the country privileges, under any circumstances (though I am sympathetic to the notion that parties ought to organize their primaries or caucuses in such a way as to foster ongoing participation, which is one benefit to traditional caucuses). When canvassing in Iowa in 2004, for example, I ran into a bunch of restaurant workers who would have to forgo an entire night’s wages to caucus. Imposing that kind of poll tax is a terrible message for the Democratic party to send.

That said, not all caucuses are created equal. Michigan’s caucus–at least as it was run in 2004–is a lot closer to NM’s caucus: it’s just an election that the party, as opposed to the state, runs. It’s open for about 8 hours, and once you cast your vote, you’re done, pack the kids back in the car and drive them to their volleyball game. At least as we ran it in 2004, there were fewer caucus locations, so longer lines and longer drives/cab rides/free rides to polls, which is a problem. And the rules for challengers allow for each candidate to have one–but only one–loudmouth standing at the entrance pitching her candidate (this was my role in 2004, one I relished).

In two ways, though, Michigan’s caucus has greater accessibility than your garden variety state-run primary. First, at least in Michigan, the rules for casting an absentee vote are more forgiving than under the state-run primary system (our GOP SOS has made it more difficult for seniors and the disabled to enjoy automatic absentee voting, and those who absentee vote for other reasons have to show cause). So if the issue is ensuring those who can’t make the polls is an issue, MI’s caucus is actually better than the primary.

And–how cool is this? Michigan allows online voting. While there’s a huge digital divide, online voting is a way to offer voting at a time and place aside from the caucus. So while some caucuses do impose accessibility issues that we can debate (I see some benefit to it, though also, clearly, the drawbacks), not all do.

That said, understand that one of the reasons why Michigan, at least, had a primary this year instead of a caucus where we might have tweaked the rules to avoid the clusterfuck is because primaries are just as susceptible to legislative fights as anything else. The advantage a caucus offers over a primary is that the party can do what it wants to do (which is one of the curious aspects of Hillary’s underperformance in caucuses–to a large degree caucuses are controlled by party insiders, and more of those insiders seem to support Hillary than Obama, so you’d think they could game the rules for her…). That’s how Michigan’s Dems can decide that it’s time to try online voting, for example.

And in Michigan, at this point, if we wanted our electoral mulligan, it would have to be a caucus. There’s simply no way the Republicans who control the state senate would allow the state with the worst economy in the nation a do-over, particularly not one the state had to pay for.

But, understand, all the word "caucus" means is that the party controls the election, not the state. That may mean crowded high school gyms or it may mean a simple xeroxed ballot stuck in a box. And it may, in some ways, mean more accessibility than an election.

But for Michigan, at least, it would also mean having an election where our votes can and should count.

46 replies
  1. AZ Matt says:

    Democracy is messy. I am in a primary voting state and while I understand the difficulties of people being able to get to a caucus site, it sounds as if it engages more the people who can get there. I do believe that anyone who wants to vote should be able too.

  2. cinnamonape says:

    Thanks EW~ Seems that they will likely have to do a caucus.

    BTW apparently Maine DID have a mail-in ballot that one could submit if one could not make it to the caucus. It wasn’t well-known because it was the first time they offered it. But it was discussed in the literature sent out to pre-existing members of the party. It was discussed on their website and the Secretary of States website. This was specifically done to deal with all the issues that Lambert raised. I think there was a 2-3 week window for that, but they had to be mailed a week before to allow time for them to be received and counted AT the caucus. I understand that some people also just walked in and dropped them off after showing ID.

    I think that the only people who might not be able to attend a caucus that might be able to go to a Primary would be someone who had an emergency at the TIME of the caucus. But anyone with a long-term disability, or foreseeable employment, child-care or transportation issue could use the mail-in ballot.

    Caucuses are very diverse in their procedures, but there is the commonality that people do show up and actually communicate in some way with others. Some have more secret balloting, others you actually physically show your support. Some have more wrangling, others have only one designated supporter give a short speech.

    While a full-scale primary might be preferable to a caucus IN NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES. I’d have to say that when people are told that their primary isn’t going to count, and the candidates and their supporters don’t actually campaign and communicate what they are about…the primary becomes one where the Party insiders are the ones that participate.

  3. laserda says:

    Texas doesn’t get much right, but I think we Texas Dems get our primary process pretty close to right with our primary/caucus split. We hold our primary all day to allocate 75% of our delegates, and then caucus 15 minutes after the polls close to determine the other 25%. This allows anyone to have a voice while still rewarding those with the dedication to come back for the caucus that evening.

    Also, our caucuses are at the precinct level, which are mostly pretty modest affairs. In 2004 I had four people attend in my precinct. This year I expect something closer to 15 or 20, but that’s still quite manageable and won’t keep people around very long.

    I object to a pure primary system, especially open primaries, because there’s too much potential for mischief from the other side. That said, I think it’s important to open the process to interested independents. Offering an open primary while giving some additional weight to those willing to come back to caucus seems to strike the perfect balance IMO.

    • WilliamOckham says:

      I like our system too. By the way, the actual split is more like 65/35. We’ll select 126 delegates in the primary and 67 delegates based on caucus results. Caucuses reward depth of support and I think that’s important.

      I’d like to extend the caucuses out to more people by allowing some form of proxy voting. People who can’t make it to the caucuses could give their proxy to someone in the precinct they trust.

  4. FrankProbst says:

    I caucused in Michigan in 2000 (can’t remember if it was for the Dems or the Repubs–one had a primary and the other a caucus, and I voted in one, switched parties, and then voted in the other…and both my guys lost), and I remember it only took me a few minutes to find the ballot online.

    I’m sympathetic to a lot of the complaints about caucuses, but they do have one really big advantage: They seem to be extremely difficult to “fix”. Washington state is clearly trying to throw theirs to McCain at the moment, and the GOP there is looking more and more ridiculous by the day.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      FOTFLMAO ;-))

      Well, let’s just say that the news of the GOP caucus debacle in Washington State gives you a feel for what Western Wa USAG John McKay was up against — there are some rabid, GOP K-k-k-karl Rove Wannabees in this region of the U.S. Maybe it’s not so surprising that two of the people at my Democratic caucus (in Western WA) mentioned that they hold fired USAG John Mckay in high regard…?

      The Washington State GOP is heavily aligned with Property Rights zealots, and they get A LOT of their money from subdivision developers and builders. (Ohhhhh!! The stories I could tell…!) There’s also some high tech money in the mix.

      The housing developers funded two state GOP Supreme Court Property Rights candidates in the last election. One of those Property Rights candidates ran AGAINST a moderate, respected Republican incumbent Supreme Court Justice. (So yeah, many of us gave money to moderate Republican judicial candidates in the last election – to prevent the GOP Property Rights zealots from grabbing judgeships.) Clearly, the old-time moderate Republicans are just ‘not Republican enough‘ for the Bu$hBots and the Property Rights zealots. So it’s not a total surprise to watch the GOP unraveling at the seams out here…

      So Luke Esser, the Wa State GOP Chair who ‘called it’ with 87% of the vote in, is almost certainly aligned – and ‘back door funded’ — by subdivision developers and home builders. Think Mafia with a long list of environmental regs they want to gut, and you have the general idea. And, conveniently for them all, PAC money is tax-deductible — so our campaign finance laws have created sources of wealth to fund the likes of Luke Esser. Booyah!!

      Their mindset is precisely like the guy EW hosted at the FDL Book Salon on Saturday: “morality is not part of my job; my job is to win (because winning is more moral than losing)”. It was just incredibly ironic to me that they guy on FDL made those statements, while Luke Esser was putting them into practice out here in Wa state.

      Now, this is not the thread for me to whisper about potential linkages between the Big Shitpile, mortgage fraud, and the homebuilders… but if we were able to caucus together, I’m sure we’d manage a rollicking discussion about the interconnections that might be worth more scrutiny…bwahahaha… ;-))

      (And, BTW, I do tip my hat to the Book Salon author; I disagree with him, but I respect the fact that he’s at least fessing up and helping people recognize how sleazy some of these politicos are.)

  5. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Our politics have become as throw-away as our hamburgers and our soda cans. I just think people hunger for something more substantial and satisfying. That means they have to connect with one another and have a safe place to discuss issues.

    Caucuses require people to interact with one another and talk about political issues, and negotiate for delegates and votes. It’s invaluable for people to have that experience.

    The problem with caucuses is that they’re run by parties, whereas a lot of voters aren’t that keen on identifying very strongly with any specific party. Nevertheless, if the parties wanted to encourage participation, they’d figure out some more creative ways to allow caucus-attendees to select a time and date that’s most convenient for them to attend.

    Maybe we should ask more of people than a simple vote.

  6. PetePierce says:

    Well EW,I had said incorrectly earlier today that it’s up to the Democrats whether to redo the election, but apparently, at least in Michigan, it is up to your legislature.

    In order to be fair and have the most people enabled to vote, there seems to be a need for a revote in both Michigan and Florida, and you say that’s not going to happen because the legislature will balk at the cost.


    1) What do you think should happen then in Michigan and Florida?

    2) Given the situation with this compressed primary schedule where caucuses were early and there are so many byzantine complicated rules for scoring in these primaries from state to state, don’t you advocate a simplified, uniform regional voting system where the states are rotated from 4 year cycle to 4 year cycle in stead of the chaos and jockying for “me first” position that Debbie Dingell helped create in Michigan and others helped create in Florida?

      • PetePierce says:

        I think the DNC should pay for us to do a caucus.

        I agree. I wish that could happen. I have two questions.

        1) You really know the players and the dynamics that led up to the situation in Michigan. Do you think given Dingell’s push (and I suppose) the legislature who signed off on going early, that DNC could have done a better job or anything to stop it–and in retrospect if you could wave a wand and have had this problem not happen what should have been done–just Michigan holding the caucus I guess it would have been instead of a primary when DNC had it scheduled or Michigan had it originally schueduled.

        2) Also how do you feel about the idea of regional elections so that there is not the compression dynamic and problem of compressing all these states early on where different regions take turns going first each 4 year cycle as expressed in this editorial:

        Let It Start Now: Regional Primaries

  7. freepatriot says:

    Off topic note here

    hillary clinton has officially become a FUCKING JOKE

    from tpm election central

    “I want to get along, and I have gotten along in the Senate. I will work with Republicans to find common cause whenever I can, but I will also stand my ground, because there are fights worth having.”

    anybody got ANY fucking clue what fight hillary thinks is worth having ???

    it ain’t FISA

    it ain’t torture

    it ain’t war crimes or crimes against humanity

    it ain’t illegal spying

    so what exactly are you willing to fight for, you pathetic piece of shit ???

  8. Funnydiva2002 says:

    Hey, EW

    I heard a re-broadcast of Randi (Rhodes, I think) tonight, ranting on and on about the FL and MI situation. She’s clearly under the impression that Michigan does NOT have caucuses and is ONLY used to/equipped for primaries. From your post, that’s just not true. She said the same about Florida (they don’t/don’t know how to caucus), but I don’t know whether or not she’s right about that. Clearly she’s mad as hell, and I agree that the FL and MI state Dem parties are at fault. She feels that they and National should just effin’ shell out for new elections. Guess she doesn’t know that the MI state legislature has some say over that. I have no idea what the situation is in Florida.

    Anyway, it was an interesting listen, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that I just don’t like the talk radio format, even if it’s progressive talk radio.


  9. bobschacht says:

    We’re about ready to have a Dem party caucus here in Hawaii (Feb. 19). In a way, there are some important functions that a caucus has that a simple primary would not: It is at our caucuses that the party establishes precinct and district level offices. I’m a precinct president, and that happened two years ago at our District Caucus. If it weren’t for the draw of an election, who would come? At least the Caucus increases participation in the grass roots of the party structure. How do the grass roots of your party structure in Michigan form and function?

    We’re looking forward to an “Obama influx” at our Dem Party caucus on Feb. 19. It should help us revive grassroots party activity at the precinct level. And that ramifies to influence at the county and state level organizations. Take away the caucuses, and our party grassroots shrivels up. But then, I’m a newbie here, and maybe I’m all wet.

    Bob in HI

  10. bobschacht says:

    Maybe I was a bit too cryptic @12. At our party caucus, after the election, we group by precinct, and elect precinct officers for the next two years. We then meet as a whole and elect District officers for the next two years. Precinct officers are automatically qualified to participate in the County Convention, and District officers are automatically qualified to participate in the State convention.

    I don’t know where the grassroots structure gets defined in other states. How does it?

    Bob in HI

  11. freepatriot says:

    more on the joke that is the hillary campaign

    “How much do independent voters really know about Barack Obama, his voting record and his past positions?” Mr. Penn said, adding that Mr. Obama “has never had a serious Republican challenger.

    lemme see, hillary defeated some schmuck named lazio cuz rudy was stupid enough to announce TO HIS WIFE that he was filing for divorce in a campaign press conference

    and I can’t even think of the potzer who was tossed to the wolves against hillary in 2006

    hey, mr penn,ever checked your candidate’s record (ya piece of shit) ???

    lazio and whoever that stupid potzer was in 2006 (what’sherface???) ain’t zactly the top of the repuglitard talent board

    do these people realize that normal humans come with LONG TERM MEMORY ???

    maybe these stupid fuckers are operating on PRAM alone

    sorry I turned all hillary-hater all the sudden, but this shit really pisses me off

    on topic, we got a straight primary here in cali, but I’m intrigued by the primary-caucas mixture mentioned above. my neighbors like to schmooz on election day, and they just might like the “primary and a caucus” idea better than what we got now

  12. along says:

    ew: Just left this over at Jane’s thread. Has anyone yet seriously broached the possibility of MI and FL conducting full-on vote-by-mail contests? I think it could be significantly cheaper than securing and staffing thousands of caucus sites. Oregon and Washington (partially) have fantastic records of good general election turnouts (mail-ins) and few problems. And their methods are probably well documented and easily transferrable. Since it’s not a standard primary, where the state is responsible for the venues and staffing, I don’t think it would run afoul of state law. Something to look into in any case.

  13. freepatriot says:

    why should we give florida and michigan a “do-over” ???

    ya take your chances, and ya pay the price

    if the political party in your state could fuck up a free lunch, that’s YOUR problem. fix your state political party, so that don’t happen next time

    The dnc didn’t disenfranchise anybody

    the states did this to themselves

    that’s why we got rules and stuff

    • emptywheel says:


      I’m not opposed to just leaving us off–but Hillary’s not about to let that happen and given how close this thing is, a lot of people are probably not about to either.. So, I’d prefer we have a real vote then let Hillary go nuclear with a vote that wasn’t supposed to count.

      • nomolos says:

        I’m not opposed to just leaving us off–but Hillary’s not about to let that happen and given how close this thing is, a lot of people are probably not about to either.. So, I’d prefer we have a real vote then let Hillary go nuclear with a vote that wasn’t supposed to count.

        By clinton2 “stealing” the delegates it leaves those that did not want to vote for her in the position of not having their votes counted. Not a fair outcome but one that a desperate campaign will be willing to accept and to hell with the people.

        I agree that there should be a do over but I think the clinon2 campaign should pay not the DNC.

        • BlueStateRedHead says:

          Sounds fair, but pay how? In votes or dollars? If HRC wants FL and MI to be represented because voters should not be deniedtheir right to vote and may were denied believing it was not worth voting in a primary that did not count or because they know in FL it was a Republican idea, perhaps she will contribute some of her own money to the Dem Party to organize a second primary or caucuses so everyone can vote, and HRC voters can vote again.

          Don’t know much about tax law and the FEC, but it could be spun to the FEC as a voter education effort. It would surely educate Hil to the notion of unintended consequences or being careful about what Mark Penn wishes for.

          • nomolos says:

            In votes or dollars?

            I was thinking bucks. She agreed to a method, along with the other candidates, so if she wants to abrogate the agreement then she should have to pay dollars for another go round or stay with the original agreement. The whole business just reinforces the disturbing thoughts of the clintonian methods.

    • MrWhy says:

      I think I agree, but isn’t that a little bit like saying, we elected this president, let’s wait patiently till the next election to straighten things out?

  14. alank says:

    Caucuses are a legacy of the method of nominating a candidate before the state funded primary system took over large swathes of the country. A strictly party function was institutionalized. This is what allows the two major parties to keep a firm lock on the whole electoral process. It ain’t right, the primary system.

  15. Phoenix Woman says:

    A caucus works for me!

    As for the people who will say “But why not just count the prior results?”, my response is: “What about the people who voted absentee for Kucinich or who wrote in Edwards’ or Obama’s name on the ballot and might want to switch their vote to somebody else?” The caucus allows their voice to be heard.

  16. BlueStateRedHead says:

    Great minds etc. even relatively early in the a.m. That’s what I meant by being careful about what Mark Penn wishes for.

    • nomolos says:

      That’s what I meant by being careful about what Mark Penn wishes for.

      Where the hell do these people like Penn and Rove come from. Totally revolting individuals.

  17. Rayne says:

    Yup, a Michigan caucus is a good thing — I was one of those folks standing outside the door in the cold for hours pitching for their candidate in 2004. I even baked 12 dozen cookies to hand out as chum in order to get votes for my candidate; it’s a lot more intimate than a primary.

    The downside with having a party-run caucus at this point in MI is that it will not be the same ballot we should have been offered from the get-go; we’ll have Hillary-Obama, and not a full slate of candidates.

    But if that’s what it takes to make it clear that many of us didn’t support HRC, so be it.

  18. wavpeac says:

    I live in Nebraska. My family is a big voting family. Not one member of my family was able to vote. This really makes me mad. I had to work. (it would have cost me 200 to forego the clients on that day and no other time to reschedule and it would have identified me as democrat). Also I am in a profession where my political beliefs need to be kept private. I did not want to vote in a way that was “public”. My two boys could not caucus because they both work low end jobs that require working on saturdays.

    I don’t know, from my point of view, single moms and the working poor are really left out in the cold.

    • emptywheel says:

      I think you missed my point–I agreed that caucuses that require one to be in place at a particular time are problematic. But I noted that caucuses don’t have to be like that–it’s up to the state party to decide the rules.

  19. apishapa says:

    Colorado went with a caucus this year, because it is cheaper. It was at 7 PM, no early voting as far as I know. It snowed 15″ at my house, so there were only a few (15) people there. I would really have been happier with a primay and all day voting.

    My biggest gripe, though, is the inconsistency of voter requirements for the primary races throughout the country. In Colorado, you have to be a registered as a Democrat at least 60 days before the primary to vote. In other states we have Republicans, Independents and One Day Democrats choosing our candidate. This bothers me more than anything else.

    I do not trust Republicans to choose a candidate who represents Democratic ideals. And if after the last eight years, you can’t decide between the Democratic and Republican parties, you are stupid. Independents and Republicans can vote for whoever they want to in the general election, but they have no business choosing the Democratic Party candidate. And that includes “super delegates”. Why did that dickhead non-democrat Lieberman have a super delegate vote in the first place?

  20. phred says:

    EW, if you’re around this morning can you or bmaz put up a new FISA thread? I’m a little lonely on the thread below this morning ; )

  21. mainsailset says:

    I live in lucky WA state where we have both. The caucus last Saturday was filled with kids of all ages; elderly w/walkers; and working people from every walk of life.

    Of all the noise that is a caucus I will say one very positive thing. My sister and I dragged grandchildren along that will be voting age in Nov. They’re not politically involved kids, nor did they want to be. But once we entered the room where their community was gathered, including other kids their age, they were transformed by the energy and commitment of the room into kids that now are pouring through books, papers, the internet to become informed. For us, those couple of hours gave the kids what no primary ever could.

  22. Justina says:

    I´m from Hawaii and have participated in a number of caucuses there. The caucus process is a great place for discussion and interaction among members. It is also an important organizing tool for the party. But, the downside is that there are many people who, due to work or children or disabilities, cannot come to a two hour meeting.

    My solution would be to provide for absentee ballots for the caucus wherein people could indicate, by rank order, their choices. The absentee ballots would count for 40 per cent of the vote, leaving the ïn-person voters with 60 per cent of the vote.

  23. frahse says:

    Caucus systems are nuts.

    Early voting in a primary is not all that great either, as many who voted for candidates that weren’t running by the primary time have discovered.

    Maybe if they had a system where you could vote early in case you couldn’t make it to the poll, but you also could have a second or third choice in case your candidate dropped out. It doesn’t seem to be as bad for a regular election as the candidates don’t usually drop out.

  24. Sara says:

    Bless the Democratic Party — but you know we have clear rules as to what Michigan and/or Florida would need to do, should they want a do-over.

    Their State Central Committees have to submit a plan and a petition to the DNC for authority to conduct a new delegate selection process. The Plan has to conform to the delegate selection rules in The Call. Then the DNC’s Rules Commission would look at the plan for the do-over, and approve/disapprove. My guess is they would also force Florida and Michigan to void the rule breaking outside the window primary results for purposes of selecting national delegates — taking it out of the hands of the Convention Committees. Once DNC agrees to a new plan, then the state party has to finance it.

    So — has anyone in Michigan or Florida heard about an emergency meeting of the State Central Committee? That is where it begins.

    As to Caucuses — Most folk in Minnesota who are interested in Politics, really appreciate our caucus tradition. We do have party rules that allow for some absentee participation, and we have a state law that prohibits many kinds of public meetings on caucus night. (We require the DFL and R’s to caucus at the same time, because we don’t have party ID on our registeration to vote — this keeps R’s out of DFL business on the theory you can’t be in two places at the same time.)

    By the way, apparently the DNC will approve on line voting with certain security features for a caucus — it is, apparently a two step process, you register for the caucus, and then on election day, night, whatever, you vote online. Some on our State Central looked into it a year or so ago when they were working on the MN Call — and while it was not adopted, many wanted to look into it further. But many of us also believe there is huge value in a Real Political Meeting where things are actually debated face to face.

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