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electionlineWeekly--February 23, 2012

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

A caucus for concern?
Problems in several caucus states reignite caucus vs. primary debate

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The only certainty in election administration is uncertainty. No matter how professionally run an election is because there is a human and natural element involved, administrators can never guarantee anything.

One thing that does seem guaranteed is that every four years, as Americans head to the polls to choose a president, the debate of how we do that — primary vs. caucus — will take center stage in the early months of the process.

With caucus issues in Iowa, Maine and Nevada so far, this year is no different. However, like many things in life, desire and reality are often two vastly different things.

“Elections aren't like the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies where one person has ballot boxes, [and] someone else has a polling place... it takes time, money and skill to do elections right, and the problems Iowa and Nevada have encountered suggest that if you want professionally-run elections, you should hire professionals to run them,” wrote Doug Chapin, director, Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, in a recent blog post.

Richard Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California wrote a piece for Slate referring to party officials that conduct caucuses as the Keystone Kops. Hasen suggested Congress get involved and scrap the caucuses.

“Amateur hour is over. The choice of a president is simply too important to put in the hands of party bumblers and the small percentage of people who are willing to spend hours to cast a vote,” Hasen wrote. “Let’s have primaries—and then figure out how to make sure all those voting machines work properly.”

But are caucus states ready or willing to take on the added burden — both financial and physical — of conducting presidential primaries?

In Iowa, the answer is no. Not because the state couldn’t handle the burden, but because the state enjoys its first-in-the nation caucus status.

“The Secretary of State wholeheartedly supports Iowa’s current caucus process and intends to do everything he can to preserve it,” said Sarah Reisetter, director of elections for Iowa. “The Iowa caucuses provide Iowans with a unique opportunity to interact with presidential candidates and those opportunities may decrease if our state moved to a primary system.  Secretary Schultz is not interested in seeing that happen.”

According to Maine Director of Elections Julie Flynn, even if officials in Maine wanted to return to a primary system, it’s not as simple as it seems.

Maine had a presidential primary law for many years that was never used by the parties Flynn said. The state adopted a presidential preference primary law in 1993, and presidential preference primaries (PPP) were held by the Democratic and Republican Parties in 1996 and 2000.  The law was then repealed in 2003, so the parties went back to the caucus system starting in 2004. 

“Our law requires the qualified political parties to hold caucuses every even-numbered year in order to keep their qualified status,” Flynn said. “So, even if the PPP law is enacted again, parties would still have to caucus to meet their qualification requirement.”

If the state were to do away with caucuses Flynn said it would cost Maine $75,000 to $150,000 to provide ballots with municipalities bearing the cost of securing and setting up polling places and paying elections officials.

In Nevada, although Sen. James Settelmeyer has submitted a draft bill request to make that switch back to primaries, there seems to be little support for the proposal.

Due to rising costs and decreased interest, Nevada scrapped its primary system in 1984 in favor of caucuses. The costs for Nevada to move back to a primary system — it used one prior to 1984 — would be $1-2 million every four years. And for a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and a 2011 budget deficit of 54 percent, spending any additional money is almost out of the question.

“If we've learned nothing else from recent history, it's that the appetite for professional election administration isn't always matched by the kind of budgets to make it happen,” Chapin said.