If you live in a caucus state, like I do, you’ve heard party officials talk about how the caucus system is more democratic, more small-government, more conducive to building party unity than holding a big primary. Here’s Washington Democratic Party spokesman Jamal Raad, touting the system to me over the phone: “We’re not trying to be representative of the Washington State electorate. We’re trying to be representative of Washington State Democrats. And we actually make it very easy. You just have to show up and affirm that you’re a Democrat to participate. … It’s like a block party.”
But it’s a block party that not everyone can attend. And that’s a problem, especially for the environment, because the people left out tend to be those who care more about it.
The caucus system was once more common in our national elections, but Washington, where Democrats vote on Saturday, is one of only 12 states and a handful of territories that hold onto it. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both appeared here in recent weeks, seeking votes. But many potential Democratic voters will find it tough to cast ballots for either candidate. Instead of simply walking to your local polling place and then going on with your day, caucusing is an event. And if you don’t have the time or ability to participate, you’re just plain out of luck.
Scholars like the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Thomas Patterson suggest that the caucus system disproportionately disenfranchises minorities, low-income earners, and young people, who are much less likely to show up than older, whiter, wealthier voters. And those who don’t show up — young voters, voters of color — tend to be more progressive on issues like climate change, the environment, and infrastructure spending. For example, voters under 30 tend to be slightly more concerned about climate change, at 54 percent vs. 51 percent for all age groups per a 2015 New York Times/CBS poll. And both black and Latino voters are more likely than white ones to say climate change is manmade, according to Pew.
Here’s how the caucus works in Washington: It starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, generally taking place at community centers, libraries, town halls, school gyms, or — in my precinct — a dance studio. Once all the participants are gathered together, precinct captains will be selected, votes will be cast, tallied, and the results announced. Like the Iowa Democratic caucus, caucus-goers can attempt to sway undecided voters if there is no clear majority, and then a second tally is taken. The second tally is what determines how many delegates each candidate receives at the national convention in July.
This is not a quick process. It’s projected to take two hours, minimum. So to have your say, you must make time for at least two hours on a Saturday, right around the time you’d normally be taking the kids to soccer, setting out for brunch with your gals, or sleeping through your hangover. And we wonder why voter participation is low. Even people who want to take part in the caucus often can’t — me, for instance. I’ll be 3,000 miles away, stepping off a plane right around the time the first tally is taken.
Clinton herself called this a problem when she was running against Barack Obama in 2008: “You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard. That is troubling to me. You know in a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time — they’re disenfranchised. People who can’t be in the state or who are in the military, like the son of the woman who was here who is serving in the Air Force, they cannot be present.”
In Washington, you can participate if you’re in the Air Force, or any other branch of the military. The party provides exceptions for people who are unable to attend due to military service, work, religious obligation, disability, or illness. Those who qualify can submit a surrogate affidavit form to the state party rather than attend the caucus on Saturday — although they’ve got to do it a week in advance.
Theoretically, this should take care of some concerns about disenfranchisement. But of course, that presumes that you’ve actually heard of the surrogate affidavit form, which most people haven’t. And regardless, this workaround doesn’t cover voters who don’t have the excuse of military, work, religion, disability, or illness. It leaves out caretakers, for instance, who may be unable to bring along the elderly person or young children in their care. And it leaves out people like me, who don’t have a valid excuse at all. Simply not going to be in town this Saturday? Sorry, no voting for you.
When I asked Raad, the Democratic spokesman, about these concerns, he said the party is aware of them. That’s why party officials added “work” to the list of acceptable reasons to use a surrogate affidavit form for the first time this year. He also said they are reaching out to Asian-American and Spanish-language newspapers to spread the word about the caucus, although he wasn’t aware of any efforts being made to specifically reach other communities.
In 2008, according to Harvard’s Patterson, the national average voter turnout in caucus states was just 6.8 percent, four times less than participation in primary states. In Washington state, it was even lower: Only 0.9 percent of eligible voters actually caucused. And the tiny percentage that shows up tends to have different views than the general public. “Even after accounting for many other factors, caucus attenders were more ideologically extreme than primary voters,” wrote Brigham Young University political scientists Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope in a 2014 Washington Post editorial. “In terms of their willingness to take consistently conservative or liberal positions on the issues, caucus attendees look a lot more like members of Congress than they do average Republicans or Democrats.” The Washington Democratic Party is hopeful that with a heavily contested race, this year’s caucus turnout will be record-setting. But that will still mean just a tiny percentage of the state’s voters helped choose the nominee for president.
This “block party,” it seems, isn’t about the people: It’s about the Party.