Abolish the caucus

Minnesotans, especially DFL'ers, have been busy patting themselves on the back for the huge turnout at last night's caucuses. According to the Secretary of State's office, more than 200,000 Democrats cast presidential ballots, while the Republicans drew in excess of 60,000 primary voters. Participation rates for both parties broke records. On the DFL side, turnout nearly tripled the previous high-water mark. Caucuses throughout the state reported long lines, traffic jams, and a shortage of ballots. Pretty impressive stuff--and profound evidence that beltway blowhards like David Broder are full of beans when they whine that the compressed primary schedule is harming Democracy.

But let's examine those caucus numbers more closely. As of 2006, there were 3,118,515 registered voters in the state of Minnesota. In other words, roughly 8 percent of folks who had gone through the bother of registering to vote actually participated in the presidential primary last night. The numbers are even more pathetic when you consider eligible voters. There were 3,727,000 such folks as of 2006. Now we're down below 7 percent of eligible Minnesota citizens registering their preference in the presidential primary.

That's not impressive. It's a travesty.

But this isn't a knock on Minnesotans and their proud history of political engagement. The evidence is overwhelming that when presented with a rational system for voting, they'll flock to the polls. Consider recent elections. In 2006, with no presidential contest on the ballot, 2.2 million Minnesotans voted--roughly 60 percent of the electorate. Two years earlier, with John Kerry facing off against President Bush, a whopping 78 percent of eligible Minnesotans made it to the polls. In fact the percentage of voters showing up for a general election hasn't dipped below sixty percent since 1994.

So why the abysmal turnout yesterday, despite the most intriguing, tightly contested presidential primary contest in decades? Clearly the answer is the caucus system, whereby voters are forced to show up at a specific time to indicate their preference for president. Many people can't show up because they're working. Others can't find babysitters. Some may have been waylaid by a demon case of the runs. There's plenty of valid reasons why folks couldn't make it out last night.

To make matters worse, Minnesotans don't actually caucus for the presidential primary. They're not required to gather in tribal circles and publicly declare their allegiance to Mike Gravel (or whomever) as is the case in Iowa. You simply fill out a ballot indicating your preference and call it a night.

So what is the justification for this confusing, un-democratic, inefficient caucus process that disenfranchises thousands of potential voters every four years? Beats the hell out of me.

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