Monday, May 23, 2016

John Oliver: primaries and caucuses

What a way to pick a president, huh?

I've blogged about this previously, how caucuses are voter suppression on steroids (not my phrase). In that post, I said:
And here in Nebraska, where the Democratic Party has had a caucus since 2008, party leaders are struggling to get voters to show up at the primary, where other offices are at stake, but not the presidential election. That can't be good.

So, how did that turnout? Just as bad as I expected.

Bernie Sanders won the caucus in Nebraska, and was awarded two-thirds of our delegates. But nearly half of his supporters couldn't be bothered to actually vote when the primary election came around.

Edit: My original numbers here were wrong. I'm not sure why. But I slandered Sanders supporters in that last sentence. My overall point remains valid, though. So let me continue with more accurate figures.

Bernie Sanders won the caucus in Nebraska, and was awarded two-thirds of our delegates. He received 57% of the vote, compared with Hillary Clinton's 43%. A solid win. But the turnout of 33,460 people is only 9.3% of registered Democrats in our state.

(Note that the graph here indicates a 2.5% "voter turnout" in Nebraska's caucus. But I don't know what numbers they're using. According to the Nebraska Secretary of State, there are 359,821 registered Democrats in Nebraska, so... check my math, if you like.)

A few weeks later, though, we had our primary election, and the presidential candidates were still on the ballot. Among Democrats, the turnout was 84,009 voters (again, from this document from the Secretary of State).

That's two and a half times the number of Nebraskans who participated in the caucus, and they gave the 'win' to Hillary Clinton. Of course, she didn't get any delegates from that. But in the primary, where two and a half times as many Democrats participated, 51% of Nebraska voters chose Clinton, versus 45% for Sanders. These were people who actually voted.

Note that there are 3500 votes missing (84,009 Democratic voters vs 80,436 who voted for Clinton or Sanders), with no explanation. Maybe some Democrats didn't bother voting for president, because our delegates had already been apportioned? Well, that's not enough to change the results, even if all of them were Sanders supporters.

Caucuses suppress the vote. That's bad in itself. But that voter suppression changed the outcome of the election in Nebraska (and in Washington state, as well). I don't know how common that is, but it's a serious problem.

And note that, in Nebraska, Democrats caucus, but Republicans don't. That's another problem, because it's hard to get people to the polls when the presidential race isn't going to matter. Republicans have a big advantage in registered voters here, anyway - 564,718 vs 359,821, which is a 22% difference.

But nearly two and a half times as many Republicans as Democrats actually voted in the primary. That's just an incredible difference.

I have to think that the caucus was a big part of the difference. On the Democratic ballot, the presidential contest was meaningless, since that had already been decided. (Not so on the Republican ballot.) There were other important - if not so exciting - political offices decided on that primary ballot, and issues, too. Why give Republicans an even bigger electoral advantage than they already have?

My original post continued:

And keep in mind that the caucus turnout was pathetic in itself - just 2.5% of eligible voters, apparently. [Again, I don't know what numbers they were using in that graph, since I make it 9.3%. But presumably they used the same calculation for each state, so the comparisons should still be valid.] Even that was more than they expected. Believe it or not, the headlines here in Nebraska were about the "big caucus turnout."

There are two problems with this. The first is that caucuses suppress the vote. Yeah, 2.5% turnout was considered huge (with a fierce presidential contest still undecided, too). Well, I don't want my presidential candidate determined by 2% or less of the Democrats here.

But the other problem is that there are other races and other issues, all of which need voter consideration, as well. However, when you take away the presidential decision from a primary election, how do you get people to show up for it?

As I say, here in Nebraska, nearly half of the people who gave Bernie Sanders that caucus win didn't even bother to vote a few weeks later.

And it's worse than that, because here in Nebraska, the Democratic Party caucuses, but the Republicans don't. Thus, Republicans do have the presidential contest to get them out to the polls. (As it turned out, Donald Trump was the only candidate left by the time Nebraska held its primary, so there wasn't much of an incentive for them, either. But that was pure luck.)

I've heard a lot about those notorious "superdelegates" this year, and I don't want our presidential candidate determined by them, either. But I think I'd rather have superdelegates - most of whom were elected, at least - making that decision than caucuses. Of course, I'd much prefer to have a primary election.

At least it's relatively easy to participate in a primary. At least you have to work at it to suppress the vote in a primary. And if you vote in a primary, maybe we can have some confidence that you'll actually show up to vote in the general election, too.

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