How Washington state political parties select which presidential candidates to support has long been a source of frustration. (Republicans less so — their system of partially using primary election results to pick political convention delegates has tended to be more democratic than the purely caucus-driven results used by the Democrats.)
Three years ago in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, we observed: Pacific County Democrats — or a small sub-set of them anyway — partook of the quaint ritual of caucusing last month. Though some local citizens also will participate in the May 24 Presidential Primary Election, on the Democratic side that vote will count no more than voting in an online popularity survey. Something like 1 percent of eligible Washington state voters typically participate in the caucus, which is how delegates pledged to specific candidates are chosen to attend the next phase of the Democratic Party’s presidential-selection process.
The caucus system used in Washington and a declining minority of other states is fundamentally flawed and unfair. In a normal year the caucus is a process designed to keep people out rather than bring them in. Caucuses remain one reason why American politics have gravitated away from the ideological middle ground.
“Even after accounting for many other factors, caucus attenders were more ideologically extreme than primary voters,” wrote Brigham Young University political scientists Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope in a 2014 Washington Post editorial.
Washington’s Democratic Party has been highly resistant to allocating presidential convention delegates via far easier and more democratic primary elections.
There now finally are indications of willingness to change on the part of Democratic Party leaders.
Last week, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee announced it will decide on April 7 “whether to continue with a caucus system or switch to a primary system to determine how many delegates are won by each of the presidential candidates.”
In a nod toward openness, the Democrats’ central committee is inviting 30 days of comments from rank-and-file party members at www.WAElectionCenter.com. Participants must affirm that they are Washingtonians who consider themselves to be Democrats.
“These are detailed plans that address timing, accessibility, and more,” Washington State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said in a press release. “Our goal for 2020 is to run the most successful caucus or primary ever in Washington state. So for the next 30 days, we are asking Democrats across the state to read the plans, leave comments or questions, and tell us which plan they prefer.”
No matter what the survey determines, the Democratic Central Committee says there still will be party caucuses to select exactly who to send to political conventions. The primary would determine the number of those delegates initially allocated to each presidential candidate. (Typically, delegates are free to switch to other candidates after the first convention ballot.)
All this still seems somewhat convoluted — something that is hard to avoid, considering political parties’ interest in attempting to make sure that only Democrats choose who their presidential nominee will be, and same for Republicans. Both parties fear non-members will manipulate results by trying to select unelectable candidates, or candidates not genuinely in line with the party’s positions.
These concerns are overblown. But court rulings have supported the position that political parties are non-governmental entities that have a right to set their own rules for membership and participation.
Though its potential move toward honoring primary election results is imperfect, the Democratic hierarchy is leaning in the right direction. Republicans deserve credit for having already done so.
The American political process benefits when the entire range of voter preferences is included, not merely those who are so passionate as to be willing to sacrifice a spring Saturday to attend caucuses.
Finally, it’s also noteworthy and laudable that Washington is moving toward an earlier primary election date. Scheduling it in March means state voters will get to see presidential candidates in person, and will have a meaningful role in selecting who advances to the November General Election.