The way the state Democratic Party picks a presidential nominee is so insular and clubby it scarcely qualifies as democracy.
Maybe the state Democratic Party should change its name. Because it isn’t at all democratic how they’re choosing a presidential nominee.
The caucuses held here last weekend were described in media reports as “packed” and “bursting at the seams.” Lines around the block were reported, as well as crowds in overflow rooms. It gave the feeling of massive civic engagement.
But in reality, only 5.8 percent of the state’s registered voters showed up. That means 94 percent of voters didn’t. Even the most moribund municipal election for, say, water commissioner, gets turnout rates five times that amount.
This also means that Bernie Sanders’ landslide win was earned with the backing of just 4 percent of our 4 million registered voters.
Can you call something a peoples’ revolution with that few people?
The problem isn’t with the candidates or their caucusing supporters. It also isn’t just public apathy.
It’s the hidebound political party that simply refuses to let the people fully into its nominating process.
We could have voted in a primary election this year, using mail-in ballots, but the state Democratic Party flatly rejected that. They stuck with a caucus system that, quaint as it may be, dramatically suppresses the vote.
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The party likes it because people have to give their email addresses and phone numbers. This contributes to “party-building,” meaning the recruitment of volunteers and the creation of fundraising lists. What it does not contribute to is equity, access or the enfranchisement of the people, especially for marginalized populations — all things the Democratic Party says it cares deeply about.
The party rightly opposes “Voter ID” laws as a contrived burden that depresses voting by race and class. So then this same party makes people come stand in a gymnasium for two or three hours on a weekend?
Two political scientists from Brigham Young University studied these events, resulting in a paper called “Who Caucuses?” Mostly it’s “the wealthy, educated, white and interested.” This fits with The Seattle Times portrait of one caucus in the city’s most nonwhite neighborhood: “While the caucus was located in the racially diverse but gentrifying Rainier Valley, most of those who turned out were white.”
If the caucuses were put through a race- and social- equity test, I bet they’d fail.
Compare it to what happened earlier this month in Arizona. That state cut back on the number of polling places in some urban areas, resulting in long lines of voters. The mayor of Phoenix called this out as the type of institutional bias that disproportionately affects poorer voters.
“If you’re a single mother with two kids, you’re not going to wait for hours; you’re going to leave that line,” he told The Washington Post. As a result, “tens of thousands of people were deprived of the right to vote.”
This was headlined: “Arizona’s voting outrage is a warning to the nation.”
But what’s the difference between that and our caucuses? Theirs was done by the state; ours by a private organization. Maybe theirs was an intentional disenfranchisement of certain groups; I’m guessing ours was not. But in the end if there’s such unnecessary burden heaped on the single mother that she doesn’t vote, either way she’s disenfranchised.
It’s a harsh accusation, but the numbers don’t lie. Massachusetts, a state of 6.8 million, held a primary March 1 with regular ballot voting, and the Democratic side alone drew 1.22 million votes. Our state, with 7.1 million people, drew only 230,000 to the caucuses. That’s a million-vote difference.
The Democrats’ caucus system here likely repelled on the order of a million votes.
Now the Sanders supporters are upset about another antidemocratic fixture of the Democrats, the superdelegates. These are the party bosses who can sway a close election. Sanders supporters righteously demand that they “heed the will of the people!”
Can you invoke the people’s will when 94 percent of the people weren’t there?
We’ll never know if Hillary Clinton might have won here if we had had a primary.
But we can say there’s a serious problem if a candidate wins a 45-point landslide, yet even that isn’t enough to tell who the voters in a real democracy might have chosen.