This primary season has seen substantial debate about whether Iowa, a primarily white state that has a complicated system for reporting results, should be the site of the first caucus or primary of the presidential election. Moreover, the Iowa caucus features an incredibly low voter turnout, with only about 17 percent of Iowans taking part in 2016 (UVA Center for Politics, “Primaries versus caucuses: The score so far in 2016,” 04.21.2016). Low voter turnout is not a problem exclusive to Iowa’s caucus, and Iowa is just one of many caucusing states with low turnouts that don’t represent the state as a whole. For states with primaries, the average turnout rate was 36.1 percent in 2016, while for states with caucuses, it was 11.3 percent (UVA Center for Politics). The people whose lives are often most affected by policies—people with disabilities, people who work evenings, parents with young children—are, disproportionately, the people who can’t access a caucus. I’ve seen this lack of accessibility first hand while volunteering at a caucus in Minnesota and through the experiences of my family members.
Caucuses prevent large groups of people from having their voices heard which is why the process needs to switch over to being a primary-only system. Like with any change to the political system, there are barriers to overcome. Each state determines whether it uses a caucus or primary system. In order to switch from a caucus to a primary system, the citizens of states that still use caucuses would have to call for change themselves. Although challenging, this is not an impossible task: Minnesota swapped its system following the overcrowded 2016 caucus (StarTribune, “New law will shift Minnesota’s presidential caucuses to primaries,” 12.29.2016).
Minnesota has seen the highest voter turnout rate in general elections of any state, with a 75 percent turnout in the 2016 presidential election, but the turnout rate for the 2016 caucus was only 10.2 percent, and even then locations across the Twin Cities were overwhelmed by the number of caucus-goers (FairVote, “Voter Turnout”); (Minnesota Secretary of State, “Historical Voter Turnout Statistics”). Even in politically active Minnesota, the turnout was lower than every state where both major parties held primaries (UVA Center for Politics).
In 2016, I was too young to vote, so I volunteered at the Democratic caucus that took place at my high school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The student-volunteers showed people which room they were caucusing in based on their precinct. As soon as the caucus started, people streamed in. It didn’t take long before there were people lined up in the hallways waiting to get into their room to cast their ballot. This wasn’t unique to my location; across the Twin Cities, caucus locations were overcrowded (Twin Cities Pioneer Press, “Huge crowds for Twin Cities DFL, GOP caucuses,” 03.01.2016). To make things go quicker, we started going down the lines with a check-in sheet, a coffee can and post-it notes for people to write down which candidate they were supporting because we had run out of actual ballots.
As I rushed around helping people find out where to vote, I noticed a person standing against the wall and I thought he looked a bit uncomfortable, but before I could make the decision to go over and help him someone else had approached me asking where to go. It was 10 minutes or so before I was back in the same spot and saw the man still standing there. I went over to see if he needed help, and it turned out that he needed assistance finding the room for his precinct, but, more importantly, he needed help navigating the crowd, which was making him anxious. As I walked him down the hallway, we chatted—although I often had to interrupt our conversation to ask people to clear a path so we could get through. As we talked, he mentioned that he had autism, which made this caucus especially anxiety-inducing for him, and I remarked that my brother has autism as well. We arrived at his room, which luckily did not have a line. Later that night, I talked with my family members about how crowded it had been at their caucus location. I thought about how my brother likely would not have been able to caucus if he hadn’t had someone with him to navigate the crowd. My brother wasn’t the only member of my family who faced roadblocks to being able to caucus—my dad wasn’t able to vote because he was working that evening.
Luckily for my dad, brother and many other Minnesotans who faced challenges related to caucusing, Minnesota passed bipartisan legislation to switch the state to a primary for nominating presidential candidates due to the large crowds at both the Democratic and Republican 2016 caucuses (Minnpost, “How Minnesota’s switch to a presidential primary might impact the 2020 election,” 04.23.2019). Precincts still hold caucuses a week before the primary to discuss issues to add to the party platform and to choose delegates for candidates in state-wide races. Therefore, people who want to get more involved with the state party still have that option. But on the day of the primary, people can go and vote throughout from morning until night, so there won’t be large crowds to push through, not to mention the absentee early voting options.
Minnesota was not the only state to recently switch over to a primary system. In 2020 only four states will not have a primary, so it may feel unimportant to push for a primary-only system, but two of the states that still hold caucuses are Iowa and Nevada which are two states whose results are given a large amount of attention (New York Times, “Besides Iowa, These Are the States With Caucuses,” 02.04.2020). The importance given to the results of these caucuses is an incentive for these states to continue using the system they have even though it results in lower participation. Ultimately the decision to switch is made not by the Democratic or Republican National Committees, but by the state parties and legislature (The Washington Post, “Everything you need to know about how the presidential primary works,” 05.12.2015). This makes it especially important for voters in states that still caucus to call on their states to change to a primary. Until they do, some people will be blocked from participating in the nomination process and won’t have a say in which candidate best serves their needs and represents their values.