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Attention Democrats: Presidential primaries are more democratic than arcane caucuses

The state Democratic Party likely has a big decision to make.

Now that the state Legislature has approved a bill to move Washington’s presidential primary from May to March, it’s time for the party to embrace its chance to have a relevant, more inclusive presidential primary next year. That means actually awarding delegates based on the results.

Sticking with its longstanding preference for caucuses would mean eschewing common sense and, well, just about everything democracy is supposed to be about.

This shouldn’t be a tough call.

What will happen remains anyone’s guess. Much depends on the results of an April meeting of the state party’s central committee, not to mention a decision by Gov. Jay Inslee, who must sign into law the bill moving up Washington’s primary.

So far, Tina Podlodowski, who chairs the Washington State Democrats, has remained noncommittal.

But any heartburn state Dems might be experiencing is simple to diagnose. At least in part, the party’s affinity for an outdated, cumbersome and exclusionary caucus system reveals that the process of assigning delegates to Democratic presidential candidates has been more about party building than encouraging participation.

That’s backwards.

In May 2016, roughly 230,000 Democrats took part in caucuses, the results of which ultimately led to 73 percent of Washington’s unpledged delegates going to Bernie Sanders.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young of Gig Harbor chaired a legislative district caucus meeting.

Young recently told Crosscut’s Melissa Santos the experience was “inherently undemocratic.” Young witnessed people forced to park over a mile away “on dirt roads without sidewalks” and saw “more than one mom with a kid in a stroller walk out.”

“I watched people who were in obvious discomfort and pain trying to sit in the caucus that lasted more than six hours, and they grew more frustrated,” Young told Crosscut.

Two months later, more than 800,000 people voted Washington’s 2016 Democratic primary election, the nonbinding results of which tilted in Hillary Clinton’s favor. That exercise counted for squat.

This cuts to the root of the matter. While proponents rightfully point out the caucus system encourages face-to-face interaction and discussion between voters and neighbors, it also effectively shuts out a significant swath of potential participants. Like anyone who can’t afford to spend several hours in a school gymnasium on a Saturday, for instance.

That undermines the idealistic notion that participation is the objective. Even well-meaning tweaks, like a proposal to allow absentee caucus voting, seems unlikely to solve this problem.

This brings us back to why the state Democratic Party has clung to caucuses.

The cynical truth is that caucuses — with their laborious rules and ability to cull participants down to the most vehement and hardcore — are a great way to identify and recruit potential volunteers and donors. In 2016, participating in a Democratic Party caucus meant publicly declaring yourself a Democrat. The same is true under proposed language for 2020. This creates an incredibly valuable list that the party can then use to its advantage.

To party outsiders, that might feel trivial, but it’s not — and losing it is surely a sizable roadblock for some within the party.

That’s not to say a move to the primary system will be a panacea, or without potential drawbacks, for the state’s Democrats. Let’s be realistic.

In order to have delegates awarded through a primary count in 2020, rules typically enforced by the Democratic National Committee essentially require voters to mark a party affiliation on their ballots.

This requirement — included in the final bill — has predictably unnerved a number of understandably hesitant voters. It also seems likely to lower participation and lessen representation, according to University of Washington political science professor John Wilkerson.

Wilkerson says he’d prefer “a blanket primary where a voter could show up and vote for a preferred candidate from any party without declaring their own party affiliation.”

In a perfect world, perhaps, but even if participation were to dip significantly below the 800,000 people who participated in the 2016 Democratic primary, it certainly wouldn’t limit participation to the extent the caucus system does. The party affiliation requirement also is not unlike the sign-in required at caucuses.

Then there’s the valid question of who benefits most from primaries and caucuses.

Traditionally, both ways of divvying up delegates have displayed a potential to bias outcomes, according to UW political science professor Rebecca Thorpe.

Thorpe pointed to “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform,” which she described as a “canonical text written by a team of political scientists.” The book argues that “party insiders have effectively controlled the primary process since 1968 by promoting their preferred candidates in an ‘invisible primary’ that takes place well before the actual primary elections are held,” Thorpe says.

Conversely, Thorpe says that caucuses — while promoting “face-to-face deliberation and discussion among participants” — have historically produced results more favorable to “the most activist voters.”

Both primaries and caucuses can be to the benefit of more activist candidates, Thorpe cautions, since turnout for both is often underwhelming, and particularly motivated voters can have a significant influence. But, she says, this becomes even more pronounced in a caucus system.

That’s one of the reasons Thorpe prefers a primary system.

“The benefits of this arrangement is that it democratizes the selection process,” Thorpe says. “In my view, primaries are a better system for promoting broader, more diverse representation and inclusion.”

For the state Democratic Party, that should be the goal for 2020 and beyond.

If not, the party should face tough questions about who it really represents — party insiders or the people?

Because here’s the truth:

Neither system is perfect, but after what Democrats experienced in 2016, there’s little question that improvement and more inclusion are sorely needed.