Caucuses are not meant to be particularly democratic. They are, almost by design, a pain in the tuchus, confusing, and time consuming. They favor the kind of people with so much time on their hands that they can not only burn a whole Saturday or Monday evening, but have the time to understand and try to game the process. Their purpose is to allow party bosses to control nomination processes to some extent, while allowing the veneer of democracy to legitimize this arcane process. It is also a data collection/party building exercise.
And so while I truly feel for all those thousands of Iowan volunteers and campaign staffers who essentially just wasted the last year of their lives, I can’t really say I’m sad about the suicidal debacle that the Democratic caucus there represented. May saner processes kick off our presidential election seasons, and may Nevada lead the way in ridding us all of the process.
In 2012, I coordinated the GOP caucuses in Washoe County. It was a most challenging process, and we got almost no help from either the National Republican Party or the completely incompetent state party. But we planned ahead early, had phenomenal volunteers, and kept things as simple as possible. Voting took place with specially printed paper ballots, and it was a straight vote — no weird mini-convention processes where a candidate without enough votes was “not viable” and people had to switch allegiances to figure out who got however many pledged delegates like the Democrats do. We counted the votes – by hand – with observers from various campaigns (Ron Paul’s being the most suspicious, ‘natch), and had everything counted, verified, and reported within a few hours.
Even with that, there were problems. Not everyone understood the process, and I remember dealing with angry would-be-voters who showed up too late to participate. Turnout was very low, for a couple of reasons – first, the state party was so weak that there was no effective get-out-the-vote effort, and second, the candidates were so weak that there was no real energy behind any single campaign. (The exception was the Ron Paul crowd, of course, but they never had the numbers or the social grace to build any viable electoral momentum.) It turns out (and Trump haters should take note) that unhinged opposition to a president you wrongly believe is the second coming of Stalin/Hitler does not automatically translate into winning electoral strategy.
But the real debacle – the part the made the caucuses officially a failure in the state and national media – unfolded in Clark County. They were not nearly as well organized as the rest of the state, and as a result of that and other incompetencies, it took them days to count the ballots and report the final winner. By the time they did, no one cared, and the candidates (who already did not trust Nevada Republicans with their electoral fortunes) were off to the next contest. It certainly soured me on engaging or volunteering in the local political process.
To be grudgingly fair to the Clark County folks, they had many more people and precincts, and therefore many more potential failure points. And they had no institutional knowledge to draw from, 2012 being only the second time the caucus had been held in Nevada. In both 2008 and 2016, Democrats were already down to a functionally binary choice, while the strange combination of a still wide-open GOP field and an already clear front-runner took away a healthy sense of urgency.
It is remarkable how similar the Democratic situation is this year compared to the Republicans eight years ago, especially in light of the Iowa caucus disaster this past week. The Iowans took their caucus management experience for granted, counting on their burning partisan rage against a president of the other party to substitute for basic competence. And their reliance on new and untested technology, the primary purpose of which was to collect voter data rather than simply count votes, led to the complete collapse of a previously venerable institution. It also gave plenty of ammunition to those mistrustful of the party establishment and drug the already extant deep divisions within their party out into the open.
Nevada Democrats are smart to completely ditch any app for their caucus. Indeed, the idea that you would use thousands of personally-owned and totally unsecured pocket computers with access to the internet to gather vote tallies is nothing short of insane, especially from the party who thinks Russian election hackers are hiding behind every tree. A little paranoia about election integrity is a good thing, and it’s way harder to hack a piece of paper than an iPhone. (Personally, if I had my way, all elections would be a single day affair with paper ballots, padlocked boxes, and purple dyed fingers.)
But that also leaves them with two weeks to reinvent their own wheel (in spite of their claim that they already had paper-based fallback plans). And after Iowa, even if the caucus does go off without a hitch, will the results be trusted or credible? Will the inevitable losers try to claim victory by slagging the party apparatus or implying nefarious acts by their opponents?
After 2012, Democrats rightfully sniggered about the failures of the Republican caucuses. I recall plenty of jibes about not trusting a party to run the government who can’t even count a few thousand votes. The shoe is now on the other foot, with plenty of righteous pointing out that a party who can’t run a caucus in a small midwestern state sure as hell can’t be trusted with responsibility over a socialized healthcare system. (I agree with them both, which is why I want government to be as limited as possible, knowing that no matter what, one tribe of buffoons or another will be in charge.)
But the other lesson is that partisan tribalism does not translate to effective execution, and indeed, that tribalism is the enemy of competent governance. As much as I want my government to be small and unobtrusive, I don’t want it to be smaller than it needs to be. And the institutions of our government that we all rely on every day – infrastructure, public safety, courts, and yes, maintenance of our elections – must be run in such a way that earns and deserves the public’s trust. The greatest policy ideas in the world are worse than useless if government officials can’t execute effectively.
It will be a good first step if we rid ourselves of the caucuses altogether, and return to a legitimate primary run like any other public election. Whatever the political party machines lose by such a shift will be a boon in the confidence of our republic for the rest of us.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]