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Friday, March 22, 2024

Why Even Uneventful Primaries are Better than Raucous Caucuses

[This is an expanded version of an Insight Kansas column which appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, March 22, 2024]

When my wife and I went to vote last Tuesday, in the first organized presidential primary which Kansas has authorized in over 30 years, our usual polling station was unusually quiet and empty. I talked to one of the election workers, the volunteers who do the real ground-level work to enable our creaky electoral democracy to continue to function. She told that, as a veteran of multiple elections, this was the least busy she'd ever been. Others who reported on the vote here in Wichita basically said the same thing--which, as a political junkie, ought to sadden me. It doesn't really, though.

I say that despite the dismal turnout: overall, barely over 8% of all registered Democrats in the whole state participated, with the Republicans doing only slightly better, with not quite 11% showing up to cast ballots. Given that the 20-year average for turnout across the nation for presidential primaries is somewhere around 27%, Kansas voters clearly weren’t fired up by the choices available to them. But then, no one expected them to be. President Biden and Donald Trump had already secured more than enough delegates to win their parties’ presidential nominations, and all of the candidates who posed even the remotes challenge to either of their re-nominations had dropped out. So what substantive reason was there to participate, anyway? Why did my wife and I, along with thousands of others?

First, because the substantive results aren’t the whole story; sometimes, voters have symbolic goals in mind. Some Republicans wanted to run up Trump’s totals as much as possible as a show of support in the midst of all his crimes and controversies. (He received 75% of the Republican vote, which wasn’t quite the record some Republicans were shooting for.) And some Democrats cast protest votes as a way of communicating their disapproval of some of Biden’s policy choices. (This was my wife's reason for voting; she, along with about 10% of the Democratic voters state-wide who participated, chose “None of these names," over the current president, who did end up with 84% of the results anyway.) But second, there is also the civic value of the procedure itself.

True, the civic process of this primary election was exceptionally tame--and while this election was particularly lacking in substantive electoral value, even those primaries where the selection of delegates in support of a party's presidential nominee is hotly contested would still be pretty low-key, in comparison to the caucus system which dominated the way the parties organized voters and vetted candidate support for more than 150 years. Some, including Governor Laura Kelly, have talked wistfully about how they prefer the “energy and excitement” of the caucus system, during which those party leaders and voters and activists who are able to gather in specific places at appointed dates and times, arguing and yelling, giving and responding to speeches, casting (or sometimes re-casing) nomination ballots or sometimes just literally pulling one's fellow caucus-attenders one way or another, as supporters of the different candidates line up and get counted.

I participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Kansas in 2008 and 2016, and observed the Kansas Republican caucus in 2012, and I agree—the level of engagement on display there is appealing, or at least was very much for me. But then, I'm quite intentionally a political animal, like our current governor and probably pretty much anyone else who ever actually runs for political office--while most citizens are not. For everyone who doesn't vibe with blocks of voters shouting down their opponents, with the hurry-up and wait and rushing to line up or stand up and cheer (or boo), all of which makes the halls that parties have to rent out to handle the crush of voters who show up confusing and cacophonous--well, for folks like that, the whole thing can be pretty alienating, especially if you know your preferences are in the minority, yet you still have a symbolic stand you wish to take. And all of that, of course, doesn't even begin to touch upon all the impassioned yet introverted citizens out there, or the opinionated folks who can't get off work or don't have reliable transportation or can't find child-care or are dealing with physical disabilities, etc., etc., etc. The fact that caucuses are simply not the best way to represent the great majority of folks who actually affiliate with our political parties is indisputable.

I can understand the argument that, for all of these costs and limitations, the participatory democratic virtues of caucuses make defending that system worth it. I certainly respect that a lot more than the grumpy attitude of Kansas's Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who thinks that spending state money to allow Republicans and Democrats to vote for their preferred presidential candidates is a waste of money, and should be left solely for the parties themselves to handle through caucuses (or not--don't forget that many times state parties don't even bother with them, and just select delegates for their party's conventions internally). I'm strongly of the belief that the processes of electoral democracy, however flawed, shouldn't be subject to demands for economic efficiency, and certainly not when you dealing with as relatively cheap an expenditure as $5 million dollars. But should they be subject to, as a matter of theory, a direct and participatory ideal?

In the end, my attitude here hasn't changed in 16 years, when I wrote up my thoughts after participating in the rushed, chaotic, in many ways enjoyable but ultimately just exhausting and frustrating Democratic caucus that was organized here in Wichita in 2008. The fact is the, for all the differences in the many ways the different states and the two major parties have employed the caucus method of selecting presidential delegates over the past century and a half, their one commonality is that they presumed more rural, more spatially intact, less diverse, and less divided and demanding political and socio-economic environments than the great majority of American voters live in today. For all the direct democracy that caucuses supposedly provide, in the much more generally urban and disparate and hurried social contexts which obtain across the majority of the United States of America, simply allowing for a straightforward in a statewide primary makes far more democratic sense. I'm not going to claim that there may not be parts of the country (Iowa, maybe?) where the prevailing political culture and existing democratic practices still fit relatively well with the participatory, caucus ideal. And, to be sure, I'm talking about the presidential election process; I'm more than happy to grant that caucus or caucus-type arrangements might well be an empowering improvement in how many parties struggle to connect with those voters sympathetic to their platforms on a local or state level. But yes: practically everywhere in the country, including Kansas, presidential primaries, staid as they may be, are best.

Of course, if that's the case, and simply asking people to show up and vote for the candidates they want their party to support, then one has to accept that you’re only going to get a large turnout if the results are expected to have an actual impact on what those parties do. Which, in Kansas this year, they didn't.

A couple of local pundits I know have their suggestions. Joel Mathis, more ambitiously, points out that since the candidate being voted on are "running to be president of the entire country," the only solution is "a national primary." His arguments for this are good, but they run smack into the reality of state control over elections (when the Supreme Court allows that, of course). I suspect that what Joel wants will only be possible when--or if--the Electoral College itself is on the table. But functionally we might get closer if we move, as Bob Beatty suggests, the Kansas primary to Super Tuesday. The earlier Kansas's primaries come in the election year calendar, the more likely they are to have some substantive weight in determining what presidential candidates parties select--and while Bob doesn't make this explicit point, since there are already 16 states--nearly a third of the whole country--that hold their primaries on Super Tuesday, encouraging Kansas to join that bandwagon would just get us functionally closer to Joel's ideal.

Whatever happens though, I was glad this primary happened, and I hope the legislature will organize another one in four years’ time, no matter what they naysayers complain about. True, a straight-up primary vote isn’t an exciting, participatory democratic process, and this year was especially predictable. But giving citizens broadly the chance to democratically express themselves doesn’t have to be exciting; sometimes, it just needs to be.


Joel said...

The first time the word "ambition" has ever been connected to my name.

Russell Arben Fox said...

But not the last, I hope!