Amid all the concern over Republican efforts to impose onerous requirements on voting such as photo identification laws, it’s worth remembering that the biggest impediment to voting in primaries has existed for decades, without any signs of correction: caucuses. Caucuses are anti-democratic and one of the worst infringements of voting rights in our current electoral system.
Unlike in a normal election or primary, where you can stop by any time during the day and vote by absentee ballot, caucuses require that you arrive within a very narrow window of time, typically in the early evening, and stay for the duration, which can last several hours. Anyone unable to do so is disenfranchised. If you have to stay to take care of children or an elderly parent, or if you’re the babysitter or home health aide hired to do so, you cannot vote. If you are disabled or a night shift worker, you cannot vote. Anyone, including active-duty military personnel, who is out of town for any reason cannot vote. That’s why caucuses have much lower turnout than primaries. For example, according to the Century Foundation , 30 percent of eligible New Hampshire citizens voted in the 2004 primary, but only 6 percent of eligible Iowans caucused. In 2008 turnout in the Iowa caucus was 16.1 percent, compared to 53.6 percent in New Hampshire. As this chart  demonstrates, other caucus states had abysmal turnout in 2008, always under 10 percent and usually closer to 5 percent, while primary states typically got at least 20 percent turnout.
Some Republican activists have been trying to change that. At the 2008 Republican National Convention they got the rules committee to consider requiring state caucuses in 2012 to create a mechanism for military personnel to vote by absentee ballot. “People serving their country should have the right to participate in the nomination of their potential commander-in-chief,” says Soren Dayton, a Republican consultant involved with the effort.
Unfortunately, the measure that passed was only a suggestion, not a requirement. The motion was proposed by Robert Lorrie, a committee member from California. Matt Salisbury, a disabled veteran who ran unsuccessfully for a Republican Congressional seat from Idaho came to campaign for the proposal. “I’m pretty sure if it had come up for a vote he would have won,” says Dayton.
David Norcross, a committee member from New Jersey who served as the RNC’s general counsel during Haley Barbour’s tenure as RNC Chair, convinced the measure’s sponsor, Bob Lorrie from California, to make a friendly amendment to change it from a requirement for caucus states to just a suggestion. Norcross says he isn’t opposed to absentee balloting in caucus states but he wanted to avoid a debate over whether the RNC has the authority to force state parties to allow absentee voting so they could stay focused on setting the 2012 primary calendar. “I don’t recall anybody being against it,” says Norcross. “You always have a group of people who don’t want to impose any rules on states. In this situation, I don’t think I’d be among them.”
Advocates of absentee balloting say some party insiders oppose any change. There are three possible reasons. First, it’s hard to campaign effectively with voters who are physically in Afghanistan. Second, military personnel are not as predictable an interest group as, say, religious social conservatives. Third, this is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Once a method of absentee balloting exists for the military, the argument of saying, “Why not allow people who are unable to be there for other reasons to vote absentee,” is sure to arise, and pretty soon you have a primary instead of a caucus. If a party establishment wants to control a process, a lower turnout event such as a caucus is preferable. As Dayton says, “caucuses being easy to control are an insider control mechanism.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment of the caucus system, saying the low turnout allows a committed minority of grassroots activists to have outsize influence. “One of the contrary arguments to caucuses is they’re too wide open and freewheeling,” says Norcross. “Maybe they’re controlled by a portion of the party, but that’s not the party establishment or insiders.” Indeed, as Norcross notes, any Iowan can show up and register as a Republican on caucus night, meaning independents and Democrats can shape the results.
The Iowa Republican Party has made no effort to accommodate military service members, or anyone else, who cannot attend in person. They confirmed to The Nation that there will be no absentee ballot option this year. The Iowa Democrats do not have one either, and their caucus rules are so arcane it’s hard to imagine how they even could create an absentee ballot option.
“There is one group of voters that is absolutely and completely barred from participating in presidential caucuses: military and overseas voters,” says Tova Andrea Wang, an election reform expert at Demos. But a lack of absentee balloting doesn’t only affect the military. “People with disabilities and people who work a nighttime shift, which includes the many Americans who now have to work two jobs, are all disadvantaged by the caucus system,” adds Wang. “Young people and other first time voters and people who don’t speak English as a first language are likely to be more reluctant to participate in such a byzantine and inconvenient system as well.”
Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University, says studies show that people with disabilities rely disproportionately on absentee voting and turn out less when there is no absentee option. “One group that’s sure to be adversely affected is people with disabilities who have difficulty travelling to the caucus site,” says Tokaji. “For some people with disabilities, voting by mail is much more convenient, if not essential.” Alas, Republicans don’t necessarily care about accommodating people with disabilities. But soldiers? Disenfranchising the military would look bad for them, if anyone was paying attention.