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Tread carefully before switching to presidential primaries

Since the next presidential nomination contests won’t be decided for another four years, we could benefit from a more thorough examination of the nomination system before deciding on changes.

Democratic caucus-goers either registering to vote or checking off their names to get ballots at a Dupont Ave. caucus site in Minneapolis last month.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

As this is being written, the governor, elected officials from across the political spectrum, and various media outlets are citing the logistical troubles highlighted by the abnormally large turnout for Minnesota’s March 1 presidential caucuses as justification for quickly pushing through a switch to a primary system. A bill was already introduced on the first day of the new legislative session that would create presidential primaries to replace using party caucuses as the method of determining delegate allocation for the major party’s presidential candidates.

These primaries would be run much the same way that Minnesota’s other state-sponsored “party primaries” are run, with absentee ballots available six weeks before the election, and anyone able to vote without recording party affiliation. However, since the next presidential nomination contests will not be decided for another four years, it’s possible to benefit from a more thorough examination of the nomination system before deciding on specific changes.

Until recently, Minnesota has not been much of a factor in moves to change the presidential nomination system. The ability of Ron Paul supporters in 2012 to gain the vast majority of Minnesota’s national Republican delegates despite not winning the vote at precinct caucus time was a factor in new rules adopted by the national party to more closely bind delegate support to caucus and primary election results. The new importance of the caucus results to determining the nomination, along with this season’s campaigns featuring more a more fractured base and more distinct factions, raised the interest of those who normally haven’t shown up at precinct caucuses to do so this year for each of the two major parties.

Three reasons offered for a switch

Three main reasons are being offered for switching to presidential primaries for nomination: 1) The caucus system is not democratic enough; 2) It is not professional enough to ensure smoothly-run elections when there is high turnout; and 3) It imposes unnecessary hardship on people not physically able to get to the locations at 7 p.m. on caucus night. Before ramming through a conversion to a specific primary system at the peak of popular dissatisfaction with the caucus structure, it would be instructive to look at the legitimacy of the objections to the caucus system, and what options make sense for addressing any problems.

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It is not contradictory to acknowledge there are now problems with using caucuses for presidential nomination while still realizing they have performed that function well in prior years. In many cases this year, the volunteers and facilities were insufficient for the higher turnout. Some people left who weren’t willing to tolerate the waiting lines, and in some locations people who arrived before 8 p.m. were turned away without being able to vote. These problems negatively impact the grassroots participation caucuses are supposed to encourage. Democrats in various states, including Iowa and Nevada, are taking the lead in setting up alternative caucuses for military members stationed elsewhere, for second-shift casino workers, and for residents of assisted-living group homes. This is happening even though the Democrats, who generally accept more government and participate more often in political meetings, typically have a larger turnout at presidential caucuses.

As for not all potential voters being able to get to the locations at 7 p.m. or claims that the system is not democratic enough — earlier generations of American citizens and political leaders would not have demanded as much from the nomination process for president, but the ascending generations are demanding it. They expect instant information, instant service, and instant results while having to exert less individual effort in the process. It’s clear that earlier generations did not share these expectations when it came to government processes. Note that there was no widespread rebellion in states where the people had no direct say in electing our first generation of American presidents, allowing state legislators to appoint electors for the electoral college.

Some strong arguments are weakening

It’s also important to note that some of the strongest arguments for having presidential caucuses are weakening. For many of the new people coming to caucuses, the caucuses are nothing more than a location for recording their preferences for candidates running for office. As parties struggling under contribution limits rely more on convention fees to offset operational costs, fewer people are willing to attend conventions, even if more show up at the precinct caucuses. There are also fewer willing to sit through discussion of proposed resolutions, because they don’t think they can learn more about politics from a small gathering of neighbors than they can from the Internet or other forms of media.

John P. Augustine
John P. Augustine

This year, I attended a caucus in a location that ran out of parking, and had to set up chairs in half of a gymnasium instead of the usual classroom just to conduct the precinct business. Despite higher turnout, there were fewer people than ever before who stayed for the business of considering resolutions and electing delegates. No one in attendance publicly shared their views on issues or candidates prior to voting, and no one said they were leaning or undecided but seeking more information. Anyone who showed interest in being a delegate to the next level of convention became one by default, since there was not enough interest to fill the delegate slots. The group did not vet anyone by listening to them or asking any questions. It’s hard to maintain faith in the judgment of grassroots delegates to nominate candidates or debate party platform language under those circumstances. For all I know, we could have chosen delegates who believe 9/11 was an “inside job” or who believe that the biggest threats to us are Zionists or magnetic pulses.

Minnesota’s precinct caucuses never had as much value as caucuses in some other states for other reasons. Minnesota requires no photo ID for voter registration, and party affiliation of voters is not part of any public record, as it is in many states. This year, if the precinct caucuses were held in close proximity, there is nothing other than time constraints that would have prevented someone from voting for presidential candidates in the caucuses of the two major parties, and then also participating in a caucus meeting or online caucus held by a minor political party at another time. If the presidential nomination for one major party had been uncontested, it would have been very tempting for a member of one party to go to the other party’s caucus and vote for the least electable opposition, since for most people caucuses are rapidly devolving into the equivalent of primaries. Freedom of association does not give someone a right to associate with a group that is unwilling to associate with that person; it simply means that free people are able to peaceably form or withdraw from associations without interference from government or forced infiltration from those hostile to the association.

Considering options

Political parties, properly understood, are voluntary associations. How should that understanding shape discussion around alternatives to the current presidential nominating system? The least radical change one could propose would be to simply have more caucus locations to avert the overcrowding, but the party officials are unlikely to pursue that course of action. For one thing, the crowd size is too unpredictable to ensure the optimal number of facilities. Also, the parties already have trouble finding enough experienced or willing conveners to lead the caucuses. Finally, the local legislative candidates (most caucus locations were grouped by legislative districts) would chafe at the demands to travel to additional caucus sites.

The next least radical change would be to continue precinct caucuses, which in presidential election years would follow shortly after the major political parties in Minnesota have held presidential primaries. This is apparently what the political party leaders are willing to do. Current state law allows people to get time off from work to attend precinct caucuses; would that be continued if there were also presidential primaries? The time off is more important to caucuses that are convened at a specific time and often adjourned a short time later, in contrast to a primary election that is open for at least 12 hours along with a window for voting absentee.

Let’s say that there is broad agreement to add presidential primary elections while retaining the caucus system for other party functions. The term “stakeholders” is misused far too often by the political class. Any change in enforced law expends public resources, which impact all citizens and frequently rely on revenues collected from citizens to implement the law. Having said that, for some groups, much is at stake.

The details will matter. Will advance registration be required, or will photo ID at least be required for same-day registrants? Will they be “closed primaries,” only allowing voters to vote in the primary of the party if they indicate a party affiliation (which could switch before the next primary election)? Will they be “open” primaries where voters could participate in party candidate selection without any recorded affiliation to that party (which is how all primaries are currently done in this state, despite offending the principle of freedom of association)? Will there be “mixed” primaries? For example, some states confine eligible voters in Republican presidential primaries to registered Republicans plus registered independents, the theory being that independents can’t win the Presidency and therefore independents ought to be able to register a preference during a party’s presidential nomination process. This theory compromises freedom of association and amounts to a mushy “fairness” argument, but it has appeal both to independents who feel entitled to shape presidential nominations and to candidates seeking a boost for their prospects from independent voters.

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Keep absentee voting time short

If there is a switch to presidential primaries, one must guard against a long window for absentee voting, because the results could be tainted by votes for presidential candidates who drop out just before the date of the scheduled primary. Minnesota Republican caucus results would have been less meaningful this year if all the names that appeared on the Iowa caucus ballot this year were still on the March 1 Minnesota caucus ballot; the party wisely waited until a week before the election to finalize the sample ballots. If the absentee-voting period is set at six weeks as it is for other elections, the chances that voters will be voting for meaningful candidates will decrease, especially for those voting absentee. Since a presidential primary doesn’t directly elect a candidate, there could be an “uncommitted” option on the ballot for party voters who want to send delegates that would be uncommitted to a particular candidate. There has to be some thought into how presidential primaries would impact minor parties, as well. They usually have to amass petition signatures to get any of their candidates on a ballot; doing that for a primary in early March would make that substantial hurdle even more difficult.

Finally, a bill to authorize presidential primaries in Minnesota must not be tainted by deal-making that tacks on other election issues that should be decided separately. There are a number of elected officials who would like to advance a national-popular-vote compact, early voting, online voting, and voting by mail. There are also officials who have been pushing for a much earlier primary election date for other contests; the temptation will be there to consolidate all primary elections into one date for the sake of “efficiency.”

No compelling public interest is served by forcing challengers for other elected offices to submit to an earlier filing deadline (even before the outcomes of legislative sessions are decided) or to a longer campaign/election cycle. Each political party should have access to the list of people who tried to impact their own party’s nomination by voting in their party primary. Any change in the process should have a neutral impact on political parties while maximizing their autonomy as voluntary associations. Electoral competition and participation in the process by engaged citizens are compelling interests that could be encouraged.

John P. Augustine is the chairman and president of the Legislative Evaluation Assembly of Minnesota. The views in this commentary are his are not specifically endorsed by the LEA.

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