If you want a case that illustrates the clash of expectations in the presidential nomination process, you need look no further than Utah’s Republican caucuses that have just been held.
These problems were well illustrated in two postings that recently came across my computer screen (h/t to Steve Hoersting via Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog). I make no claims about the accuracy of the claims (especially in Post # 1), but the sentiments expressed are certain genuine and representative.
Post # 1, a very interesting (to say the least) description of one person’s experience at the caucus, is a classic clash-of-expectations account. In this posting, we learn that the lines to check in were long, ballots were given out in an unsecured fashion, those running the event didn’t always seem to know what’s going on, one-person-one-vote may have been violated, the ballot wasn’t exactly secret, and those counting the ballots didn’t want too many people looking over their shoulders. About which I think, “sounds like a caucus to me.”
Caucuses are a vestige of early 19th century America, intended to pick nominees, to be sure, but with other goals in mind as well, such as rewarding the party faithful with meaningful activity and instilling control over the party base. What we moderns value about primaries — that they are run by professionals, are designed to minimize coercion, and value access and security simultaneously — is precisely what caucuses are not. Primaries were not gifted to Americans by a benevolent God, but were fought for by reformers over many years. Primaries have their problems (among which is the fact that primary laws also had the [intended] effect of killing off minor parties), but it is a mistake to judge caucuses as if they were primaries.
Post # 2 is a story in Wired about the Utah Republican Party’s use of an online elections vendor to run an absentee voting process for the caucuses over the Internet. The writer’s point of view is that online voting in an election is an outrage because of the well-known problems with security and auditability of voting over the Internet. Fair enough. But, this is not a secret ballot election, it is a caucus. If there is outrage to be expressed along these lines, it is for Republican leaders lending the appearance of a secret ballot election to a different sort of proceeding.
The Wired story also uncovers frustration among many thousands (probably) of would-be Internet voters that they were unable to vote because their party registration could not be verified, which may be another way of saying they were not eligible to vote in the first place, and would have been turned away from a physical caucus if they had appeared there instead. Thus, we have another mismatch of expectations, pitting party leaders, who have every right to guard the associational rights of the party organization, against party voters, whose affiliation with the parties is one of identity rather than organizational membership.
This presidential nomination season has been infinitely interesting, one that will go down in history. As the process drags on, moving from the high-profile early states to the low-profile middle and later states, we are seeing more and more examples of inconsistent expectations between process organizers and voters. I suspect this will lead to an interesting round of reform activity (The Republican Party Meets McGovern-Fraser anyone?) once the dust has settled in November.