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Friday, April 29, 2011

Priming for the primaries: Eliminate the caucus

Theresa Chalhoub, MPA

It’s once again time for presidential primary season, and while the selection process this cycle will be decidedly less competitive than the 2008 race (at least on the Democratic side), voters across the country will nonetheless go to the polls and make their decisions. As they do, I’d ask that our political leaders assess the systems that choose our nominees, paying particular attention to the shortcomings of the caucus process.

As we saw in 2008, primary season can be long and somewhat confusing. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some states hold primaries to nominate their candidates, while some hold caucuses. Caucuses have long been a part of our electoral process, but this system has become ridden with problems. Caucuses hurt voters’ rights and the electoral process in four key ways:

1) Increased social pressure on voters to vote a certain way

Because of the communal nature of caucuses, where citizens vote in front of each other, there is often pressure on certain voters to vote the “right” way. Members of minority groups may feel compelled to vote along with the majority, and some women may feel bound to vote with their husbands. This not only affects voters, but less popular candidates as well, as voters who might vote for them in the privacy of a booth are reluctant to do so in front of their community.

2) Decreased voter participation rates

Caucuses also decrease voter participation by discriminating both against in-state voters who cannot attend or remain at a caucus, and out-of-state voters who are denied the right to vote absentee. Because a caucus is held on a particular day and can last several hours, many voters – including those who work long hours, have families with small children, or are sick or unable to easily leave their homes – are often absent and left out of the voting process. Similarly, many voters who are not in the state, such as those in the military or away at school, are often not allowed to vote by mail.

Illustrating the differences in voter turnout between caucuses and primaries are the voter participation rates in the 2008 presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Iowa, which holds a caucus, 354,355 ballots were cast, out of a voting-eligible population of 2,196,724, representing roughly 16.1% of eligible voters. In contrast, New Hampshire, which holds a primary, saw 529,711 ballots cast out of a voting-eligible population of 988,708 – a 53.6% voter turnout rate.[1]

3) Decreased efforts to attract new voters

Caucuses also decrease state efforts to attract new voters. Many caucus-goers are older voters who are more politically active and represent issues that are different from the general electorate. Candidates’ campaigns often target these reliable voters and are discouraged from engaging new voters who are often intimidated by the caucus process and disinclined to participate in a system that requires hours of their time.

4) Unfair advantages for specific candidates

Lastly, as shown by the 2008 presidential primaries, the system a state uses can often be more telling of who will win than its population’s political make-up. In 2008, Barack Obama won 13 of 14 caucus states and Hillary Clinton, 20 of 37 primary states.[2] The differences between the candidates’ ability to win using different systems was particularly apparent in Texas, which held both a primary and caucus on March 4, 2008. In the primary, held during the day, Hillary Clinton won with 51% of the vote. At the caucus, held that evening, Obama came out victorious winning 56% of caucus-goers.[3]


While caucuses are a traditional part of our electoral process, this system has become detrimental to states’ efforts to achieve fair voting practices. As we move into a new presidential election season, state and party leaders should assess the disadvantages of caucuses and create ways for all voters to participate equally in our democracy.

[1] Michael McDonald, "2008 Presidential Nomination Contest Turnout Rates," United States Elections Project (George Mason University), October, 2008.
[2] This includes Texas as both a primary and caucus state. CNN Election Center, August 2008. Available:
[3] Ibid. Available:

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