Opinion Columns & Blogs

Michael A. Smith: Caucus procedures show priorities of both parties

Kansas may not be a battleground state in the general election for president, but this year’s hypercompetitive party nominations are a different matter indeed. It is highly unlikely that any candidate will have either party’s nomination sewn up before Kansans caucus on March 5, so Kansas is very much in play.

Kansas joins early-voting Iowa this year in having remarkably different caucusing procedures for each party.

The Republicans’ basic message seems to be: Let us make it easy and convenient for you to caucus – but only if you are already a registered Republican. The Democrats, by contrast, have a much more open set of requirements for participants, who are invited to register to vote and/or change their party affiliation right there at the caucus.

At the same time, the Democrats approach caucusing in the more traditional way. Their horse-trading process may showcase democracy in action, but that means Democratic caucusgoers should prepare to stay for about two hours that afternoon.

The Republicans’ rules have turned their caucus experience into something resembling the party primaries in New Hampshire and most other states – voters arrive; mark a secret, paper ballot; and leave. They even have an “uncommitted” option on the ballot, for undecided voters. Not only that, but the GOP invites voters to vote in any county caucus they choose. Those away from home, but still in Kansas, can simply caucus at the nearest location instead of returning home. There is also a provisional ballot for those not appearing on the voter rolls.

The Republicans’ easy-in, easy-out “virtual primary” has a catch: Voters must have been registered to vote in Kansas, as Republicans, by Feb. 4 or they may not participate. After the caucus, GOP leaders assign delegates based on the results, using a proportional-representation formula. Those wishing to be convention delegates may self-nominate on the party’s website, and party leaders will make the final call on who goes to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Kansas Democrats use the more traditional caucus approach, grouping the caucusgoers according to which candidate each supports – with “uncommitted” being one of the options – then eliminating any candidates under the 15 percent threshold. Next, those orphaned participants may regroup themselves with one of the remaining candidates’ supporters. After this, each attendee’s name is recorded along with which candidate he or she is supporting.

Delegates are selected by the caucusgoers themselves. Those chosen attend conventions in their congressional districts, some advance to a state convention, and finalists go to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Democrats also allocate delegates using a proportional-representation formula.

These different procedures reflect the underlying characters of the two parties. Republicans are more organized, orderly and faster, but they reserve more power for party leaders and are less available to new voters. Democrats are more welcoming, participatory and democratic, but also more time-consuming.

At any rate, no matter which party one chooses, March 5 represents a rare opportunity for Kansans to carry significant weight in a wide-open presidential contest.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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