Thursday, December 27, 2007

Caucuses Are Representative Democracy, Not Undemocratic

Caucuses Are Representative Democracy , Not Undemocratic

In a recent New York Times piece, several veteran Iowa journalists label the Iowa Democratic Party's nomination process "The Undemocratic Caucuses" and argue that the press should press the Democratic Party vigorously for the release of the first round vote totals.

In our quadrennial Iowa civics lesson, we're reminded that the Democrats report delegate totals, not vote counts. That's not good enough for Gilbert Cranberg, former editor of the editorial page of The Des Moines Register, Herb Strentz, former executive secretary of Iowa's Freedom of Information Council (and a former editorial mentor at Iowa Independent), and Glenn Roberts, former director of research for The Register.

"As nongovernmental organizations, political parties are free to adopt whatever rules they favor," they write. "But the press does not have to be a party's silent partners. The news media need to quit tolerating the practice of denying the public access to factual information about how much support each Democratic candidate actually has on caucus night."

That information would certainly be interesting, but labeling the process itself "undemocratic" is unfair. The caucuses are as democratic as it gets. But they aren't a direct democracy -- they're a representative democracy. A complicated, multi-level representative democracy, but still a democracy.

Those delegates that the national press views as mere number complicators are living, breathing people, neighborhood level leaders elected to represent the Democrats of their precinct at a county convention. This convention chooses the district and state convention delegates that choose the national convention delegates. And it's the national convention delegates, not the raw vote count, that determines the nomination.

The county convention also has some statutory authority. If there's a vacancy in a courthouse office and a special election is needed, there's no primary. The county convention chooses the nominee, and in a county dominated by one party, that can be decisive. In my county, conventions have nominated three county candidates in the last dozen years. Conventions can also choose nominees if a primary is indecisive and no candidate wins over 35 percent. After a four-way split in the 2002 primary, the 5th District Republican convention essentially elected Steve King to Congress.

In any representative democracy, there are variations in turnout. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, so any districted election system tends to lump similar types of people together. Look, for example, at the U.S. House. Within a state, districts have the same census population, and each district gets one representative. In California, 2006 congressional district turnout ranged from 61,000 to 276,000 in 53 districts with the same on-paper population.

In more homogeneous Iowa, voter turnout in 2006 varied from 180,399 in the 5th District to 223,082 in the 3rd. Reporting the raw vote totals gives us a Republican lead -- 522,388 to 492,937 -- but obscures the more important fact that while Steve King ran up the score, the Democrats won the close ones and earned three seats to the GOP's two.

Who would you say won that contest? Would you consider a "Republicans win" headline misleading?

Cranberg, Strenz and Roberts, in demanding the raw vote count, in effect want to write that headline. They prefer the simpler totals the GOP provides. But the Republican vote count is not directly connected to the nomination process. After the presidential vote, which the GOP openly calls a "straw poll," county convention delegates are elected without presidential preference. By that time, any untold number of people have gone home.

Sports fans, look at it this way, what would you rather read: the team's won-loss record, or points for and against? I remember a couple years back, at midseason my beloved Green Bay Packers had a 2-7 record while outscoring their opponents. We had a fluke 49-3 win, and lost all the close ones. (This year things are much happier, despite that loss to the %$#%! BEARS Sunday.)

In an earlier story, I compared two Johnson County precincts with the same number of delegates. Iowa City Precinct 18 is an activist hotbed, and 534 people attended the 2004 caucuses. North Liberty Precinct 1 is full of new voters, and only 171 attended. But based on voting behavior in 2000 and 2002, each had ten delegates. Those ten delegates represent the Democratic voters of the precinct -- ALL the Democratic voters, both the activists and the once every four years people. You could argue that in this sense, the caucus numbers are more representative than the raw vote count, because they are inclusive of the weak general election voters that the Democrats depend on in November.

Cranberg, Strenz and Roberts also raise the point:
It is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 percent or 12 percent of the popular vote statewide and get zero delegates. (That's because to be in the running for a delegate a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the people at a precinct caucus.) He or she may have done two or three times as well as expected among Iowa's Democratic voters and get no recognition for it.

That's true. Is that fair? Maybe. Because what does a surprising 10 percent mean in terms of real progress to the nomination? Zero. Once upon a time, the caucuses were measured as a small first step, and the national media prominently kept track of delegate counts toward the nomination. Now, the early states are an end in themselves, but at the end of the day it's still that delegate count that really matters.

It would be nice to see the two sets of numbers, raw vote and delegate count, side by side, treated equally. But does anyone really believe anyone would pay any attention to the the result that in the official sense matters, the delegate count? Cranberg, Strenz and Roberts openly acknowledge, "Little or no attention is paid to the Republican delegate count, which the press does not even bother to report."

Of course, all this side steps the real reason the raw vote isn't reported: New Hampshire thinks that's too much like a primary, and the convoluted results are one of the prices we pay for being first.

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