Opinion Columns & Blogs

Caucus voters are unrepresentative

Kansas’ caucus turnout showed the biggest spike in the nation between 2008 and 2012, a nearly threefold spike in voting at GOP caucuses that would have you believe the public is engaged and excited about today’s politics.

But only 29,735 Republicans cast votes in the 2012 Kansas caucus earlier this month, out of 744,975 registered party members. That works out to 3.9 percent voter turnout.

For 2008, that turnout rate was about 1.3 percent. Now that spike isn’t as impressive, is it?

Voter turnout is one of the easiest ways to measure the health of a democracy. For 50 years, the United States has lagged behind other countries in voter turnout, sometimes by wide margins.

When voter turnout dropped below 50 percent of eligible voters in 1996, panic ensued. Turnout has increased in the three presidential elections since, but still less than 60 percent of those eligible to vote cast a ballot in each.

Midterm elections swing between 30 and 40 percent. Primary elections tend to hover around 10 percent, and caucuses bring up the rear at less than 5 percent.

Caucuses are old-school party politics, and are also cost-effective for states because they shift the cost of election administration onto local party organizations.

Here in Kansas, the local party organizations run things well. But in Missouri, some caucuses had to be shut down because the supervising organizations could not maintain order.

Though the caucus might be great for state governments in a tight economy, there is an obvious sacrifice made in turnout when states hold caucuses. Are we comfortable with less than 10 percent of the electorate deciding presidential nominees for us?

Morris Fiorina points out in his book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” that the United States is not split along fiercely defended ideological lines. Rather, elites are polarized, giving the appearance of wide rifts between left and right.

The reason for elite polarization is because low-turnout primaries encourage those elites to appeal to those invested enough to turn out in caucuses – the extreme right and left of each party. Activists, be they union members or church elders, will gladly sacrifice a Saturday to ensure Dennis Kucinich or Rick Santorum wins an election. More middle-of-the-road types, the same ones who come to the polls in November, sit caucuses out.

But those unrepresentative caucuses can narrow the November choices down to hard-left and hard-right candidates. The 2012 results bear this thesis out.

Except for Alaska, Maine and Nevada, moderate Republican Mitt Romney has lost all caucus states to Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, the more conservative candidates.

Caucuses are cheap, and in strong single-party states like Kansas, they are popular. But caucuses are unrepresentative and elevate candidates who disengage the general population, likely suppressing general election turnout.