It’s Time for Washington State to Get Rid of Caucuses

One of the most common phrases of the early 21st century: "John Oliver is completely right."

One of the most common phrases of the early 21st century: “John Oliver is completely right.”


Bernie Sanders had a big win in the Washington caucuses on March 26th. In fact, it was his biggest single delegate win of the entire primary process. He netted a 47-delegate advantage over Hillary Clinton. His next-best delegate haul was the Utah caucuses, where he won with a 21-delegate advantage. There is no official vote count in the Washington State caucuses, but the state Democratic Party estimated that 230,000 people turned out. Sanders won 72.7 percent, which translates to roughly 167,000 votes. To put that in perspective, in the caucuses Sanders won less than 10 percent of the 1,755,396 votes President Obama received in the state in the 2012 general election.

But Washington State also has a presidential primary. Republicans use the results of the primary to allocate delegates to their national convention, but Democrats don’t. John Oliver ridiculed that practice on Last Week Tonight last Sunday:

Generally, you are lucky if you live in a state that has a primary … unless you are a Democrat in Washington State, where things get a little more complicated:

[voice over] “In Washington State we have both caucuses and presidential primaries, where you actually cast a ballot in private. But Democrats have never liked the primary and have ignored it from Day One.”

It’s true. The Democrats’ presidential primary in Washington doesn’t count. They have one, and it’s this Tuesday, but all the pledged delegates were decided in their caucus months ago. So, you know that awful friend who says he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t feel like his vote counts? If he’s a Washington Democrat participating in the primary, he’s right. He’s still awful, but he’s right.

There is a long history behind this. But to summarize: Before 1988, both parties allocated their delegates using a combination of caucuses and conventions. After 1988, the state instituted a presidential primary. Republican rules have varied in the period since, allocating their delegates through different combinations of caucuses and the primary results. For the 2016 cycle, they are allocating 51 percent of their delegates through the primary and the rest through caucuses. But Democrats have steadfastly refused to use the primary results. Indeed, in some years when Democrats have controlled the state legislature or when there hasn’t been a competitive Republican race, the primary has been cancelled altogether. That happened in 2004 and 2012.

The Washington State primary is an open, all mail-in primary–the ideal in terms of voter participation. So it’s not surprising that participation in the primary was significantly higher than it was in the March caucuses. With virtually all the votes counted, almost 720,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. More than three times the people will have voted in the primary than participated in the caucuses—this despite the fact that the primary results will have no effect on the allocation of delegates, which one would expect to severely depress participation. Clinton is winning the primary by 53 percent to 47 percent for Sanders. Even with more votes to be counted, her raw vote total is already more than double the number of Sanders supporters in his landslide win in the March caucuses. But Sanders is still getting more than 73% of the pledged delegates from the state.

Sanders and his supporters have been claiming that the Democratic primary process is rigged. And they’re right: It’s rigged in his favor. Sanders has been calling for all open primaries and has even included that pitch in his stump speech. It has been reported that it is one of the reforms he will be seeking at the Democratic National Convention in July. But Clinton has actually won 11 of 15 open primaries. She has also won 11 of 16 closed primaries. Where Sanders has come out on top is in the caucuses. He has won 12 of 16 caucuses (and eight of those wins have been in closed caucuses).

Washington isn’t the only state that conducted both a primary and caucus during this cycle. Nebraska did, too, with the same split result. Sanders won the March 5th Nebraska caucuses (and the most delegates) while Clinton won the subsequent non-binding primary on May 10th, which had much higher turnout—even though, as in Washington, the results didn’t matter. Clinton won the Nebraska primary with 41,819 votes (53%) to 36,691 votes (47%) for Sanders. But delegates were allocated pursuant to the caucuses, which Sanders won with 19,120 votes (57%) to 14,340 votes (43%) for Clinton. Sanders won the caucuses, and netted a five delegate advantage, with less than half of Clinton’s primary vote.

The Washington State and Nebraska results are about as close to controlled experiments as you get in the political process. And as those results attest, caucuses discourage voter turnout. In fact, they shrink participation numbers more effectively than all the Republican voter suppression tactics combined.You have to show up on a particular day, at a particular time, at a particular place and stand around for hours with no secret ballot while strangers harangue you—all without regard to work or family obligations (or just a life apart from politics). You have to be pretty committed to a highly inflexible process, with life circumstances that can accommodate it, to participate. It is, in short, highly undemocratic.

Sanders is right to call for reforms to the presidential primary process–ideally, in the aftermath of the presidential contest when emotions have cooled and opinions aren’t biased by the outcome of the most recent contest. And if or when Democrats get around to doing that, let’s start by getting rid of the caucuses.


Russ Daggatt

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