Overflow lines spilled out of high schools and community centers during Maine’s caucuses on March 6. Record turnout and same-day registration swamped city clerks and volunteers, who nevertheless put up a valiant effort to help everyone vote. Some caucusgoers had to wait in line for hours or re-register simply to get in the door to vote. Though Maine Democrats and Republicans reported huge surges in voter turnout, it’s clear many citizens managed to vote despite the caucus system, not because of it.
And Maine is just one example of a caucus system that is outdated and overwhelmed. Nevada’s caucuses in February were marred by long lines, accessibility issues, and computer glitches. Even worse, four years ago the Nevada Republican Party needed three days to tally and release results.
Similarly, record high turnout in the Kansas caucuses on March 5 forced many voters to wait in line for up to three hours. As crowds grew outside caucus sites, overflow plans were implemented, extra volunteers were called in, and paper registration lists supplemented computer systems. When sites ran out of paper ballots, party workers and volunteers had to print out hundreds of extras.
The structural and systemic flaws that characterize state caucuses work against the democratic process in a way that primaries, where polls are open longer and vote tallies are more often standardized, do not. In a caucus, voters who aren’t physically able to sit in a school gymnasium and debate the merits of their candidate with their neighbors get shut out. And obscure rules that vary from state to state governing delegate allotment and proxy balloting make for confusing inconsistencies when tallying results.
Some caucus states are already moving on this issue. Republicans in Washington State have switched from a caucus to a presidential primary this year, hoping to increase voter turnout. Democratic officials have stuck with traditional caucuses and decried the costs to the state of holding a primary — particularly if only the Republicans are taking part. These arguments don’t hold water, however, because it costs money to open schools, recreation centers, and other civic buildings to host caucuses. And in a democracy, it would be difficult to find an expense that is more appropriate than keeping open a polling place to choose presidential nominees.
In the aftermath of Maine’s caucuses, state Senate minority leader Justin Alfond announced plans to introduce legislation that would switch from caucuses to state-run primaries. The proposal garnered bipartisan support from both parties and both houses of the Maine Legislature. Other state legislatures should move to replace their caucuses with primaries. Taking action would remove considerable barriers to voting and empower more citizens to participate in nominating presidential candidates. There’s no better time for legislative action than the present, with a looming presidential election that seems more critical to the nation’s future than in recent memory.