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Mend (Don’t End) Presidential Caucuses

In light of this, Ed Morrissey has called for an end to the caucus system, joining a long chorus of pundits. While this is understandable, there are three reasons this is not the right approach:

First, the main reason many states hold caucuses rather than primaries is that primaries are expensive. Forcing states to hold an additional primary will ultimately end up shifting the cost from political parties to the states. For example, South Carolina’s primary costs $1.5 million. Many states can’t or won’t spend that type of money for a primary. To deny the option of holding a caucus to these states would remove them from the nominating process entirely. Further, it would be odd for conservatives to be the ones pushing for a larger government in order to avoid caucuses

Second, primaries didn’t show themselves to be a great candidate selection process, either. Most state primaries were decided by which candidate spent enough money attacking his opponents with negative ads and/or who dominated the media narrative. At least the caucuses engaged the grassroots in a meaningful way. What type of campaigns will we have if candidates can adopt the Romney 2012 model in every state? It would be wise to avoid the unintended consequences of an all-primary campaign until we have a primary process that’s worthy of emulation.

Third, such a change would require the support of both the RNC and DNC to have any hope of getting state taxpayers to shell out millions of dollars. That simply isn’t going to happen. Too many caucus states and territories won’t go along with such a rule change.

However, this season has exposed deficiencies in the caucus system, and these should be fixed. Caucus states should seek to emulate the caucuses that were well-run, such as the Kansas caucus, where the results are binding.

Having voters take hours out of their day to participate in caucuses, listen to speeches, and finally vote, and then having their vote ignored by county caucuses flies in the face of our representative form of government. Caucus delegates should be bound to the votes of their caucus, not free agents who decide they will vote against the beliefs of the people who elected them.

States should also cut back on the number of rounds of caucus voting. Some states have precinct caucuses followed by county conventions, district conventions, and state conventions. This system is needlessly complex. Having binding county caucuses followed by a state convention makes the most sense. If states opt for additional rounds of voting, these should be conducted in a virtual environment with conference calls. That would not only save the party money, but create higher participation from delegates.

Additionally, caucus results should be accurate and complete. States like Maine that hold caucuses where some counties vote and some don’t shouldn’t be able to announce that someone has won Maine when everyone hasn’t voted. Similarly, caucus states should be required to ensure an accurate count. If the margin is less than a half a percent, there should be a careful certification and recount required by party rules.

Finally, states should have primaries or caucuses, but not both. States like Louisiana hold primaries that don’t elect all of their delegates and then hold separate caucuses to elect the rest of the delegates. The system is confusing to the average voter and benefits only party insiders and extremely committed political activists.

When it comes to the administration of caucuses, the goal should be to elect delegations that reflect the will and intent of the party’s grassroots voters, not the whims of a political establishment or the dreams of a hyperactive minority. In 2012, this hasn’t been regarded by the party establishment in many states or Ron Paul supporters. It falls to rank and file Republicans to ensure it’s respected in future elections.