Caucuses Aren't Popular — But Replacing Them With Primaries Isn't Easy Americans strongly prefer primary elections open to all voters but it's tough to move away from caucuses and closed primaries even in states where there's lots of unhappiness with the current system.
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Americans Don't Like Caucuses, But Replacing Them With Primaries Isn't Easy

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Americans Don't Like Caucuses, But Replacing Them With Primaries Isn't Easy

Americans Don't Like Caucuses, But Replacing Them With Primaries Isn't Easy

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A lot of people have been asking whether their vote matters this election year, especially in states that hold caucuses. That's where a bunch of people get together to talk about presidential candidates and pick their favorites. And many people think that in that process their votes don't matter.

This week NPR and some member stations are talking about voting as part of our project, a Nation Engaged. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee looks at that state's debate over whether to drop its caucuses.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: If you are some sort of Machiavellian mastermind bent on taking down the caucus system, you could hardly dream up a more perfect scenario than what happened in Colorado this year. First, there were the Democrats, whose record turnout overwhelmed some precinct locations. Local TV news cameras captured the result.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Lines out the door, fire marshals telling some - get out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think it was just absolute chaos.

VERLEE: And then there were the Republicans. The state party decided it wouldn't hold a presidential vote on caucus night. That did not please a lot of their members, especially supporters of Donald Trump who protested at the state capital.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We just want our voice. That's our right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: One person and one vote.

ERIN BEHRENS: This election season has really shown everyone how fake it is and how disenfranchising it is.

VERLEE: That's Erin Behrens. She organized the protest over the Colorado GOP's delegate selection process. Behrens says caucuses give too few people too much power. This year, fewer than 1 in 10 active Republicans and Democrats turned out to caucus.

BEHRENS: It doesn't make any sense. Why in the world is this our system?

VERLEE: It's not just Coloradans asking themselves that. Only 14 states hold presidential caucuses. And already this year, two of them - Maine and Minnesota - have decided to switch to a primary next time around. Caucuses are attractive to states because the parties pick up the bill, not taxpayers. But Dan Diorio of the National Conference of State Legislatures says a lot of caucus states are questioning if it's worth it.

DAN DIORIO: And so I think that's really the reaction - is were they adequately prepared? And is this something that maybe the states should handle and run through the familiar apparatus of a state-run election?

VERLEE: That debate is well underway in Colorado. State lawmakers this spring considered shifting to a primary, but couldn't manage to agree before the legislative session ended. Republican State Senator Kevin Lundberg is among those urging caution. Caucuses, he believes, have served the state well.

KEVIN LUNDBERG: It's an excellent way for somebody who wants to get involved in the grassroots side of selecting nominees for running for election - gives them a great opportunity to get right in there and do it by simply showing up to your caucus.

VERLEE: Lundberg wants Colorado to keep the caucus process for picking state-level primary candidates. But he accepts that its days as a vehicle for selecting presidential nominees may be numbered. Still, he's not in a hurry.

LUNDBERG: Remember presidential politics only happen once every four years, so, you know, we've got a little bit of space to really figure this out.

VERLEE: But some aren't waiting.

CARLO SCARSELLA: We've got a petition here for a presidential primary coming up, 2020. Would you like to sign it?

VERLEE: (Laughter) Yes.

Outside a DMV in suburban Denver, petition circulator Carlo Scarsella is gathering signatures for five different ballot proposals. He says the presidential primary one is easily the most popular.

Nationally a recent AP poll found that more than 80 percent of people prefer primaries to caucuses. Kent Thiry, CEO of the kidney dialysis company DaVita is among them. He's co-chairing the committee behind Colorado's ballot measure.

KENT THIRY: In democracy, participation is healthy.

VERLEE: To that end, the proposed ballot measure wouldn't just create a presidential primary, but would open it to unaffiliated voters. Colorado business groups hope that might lead to more moderate candidates. The measure's been in the works for two years.

But Thiry says the overcrowding and anger this time around sure helps their cause.

THIRY: I think this year's caucus debacle - a really embarrassment - sort of the match. There was already a lot of kindling, and there were already some very big lugs.

VERLEE: The question is whether that fire for change will still be burning hot in November when Colorado's voters likely won't just have to decide who they want for president, but also how they want to help pick the next one. For NPR News I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.

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