Turn Down the Volume

Washington and Idaho Democrats should rethink their allegiance to the presidential caucus

The presidential caucus is a relic from the past whose shelf life has definitely expired. As a means of finding a new president, the caucus is an anachronism that has simply outlived its usefulness.

When our country was young and the population was scattered, it made good sense and dandy politics for neighborhoods to get together and talk up the candidates.

But the number of eligible voters in the country has greatly multiplied since 1783, and the nation is more mature (although so far, this year's wild ride to the presidency makes us wonder).

In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato said, "Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike."

Now, 25 centuries later, we are laboring painfully through the process of selecting candidates to run for president. Where in the process is Plato's promised charm? What can we do to enhance the variety and bring order to disorder?

Idaho and Washington Democrats can make one small step by eliminating the presidential caucus and substituting a presidential primary.

The presidential caucus as a tool for choosing presidential candidates is remarkably inefficient, costly, discriminating, time-gobbling and messy. As an alternative, presidential primaries may be less colorful, but they are private, convenient, efficient and small "d" democratic.

For 2016, Idaho Republican leaders, wanting to be a player in choosing their candidate, moved their presidential primary up to Tuesday, March 8 — months ahead of Idaho's regular May primary date. (Washington's Republican Primary is May 24.) The costs for the Republican presidential primary were paid by taxpayer dollars.

Idaho Democrats chose to retain their traditional, open-to-everyone presidential party caucuses. All costs of the caucuses — renting space, printing materials, etc. — were paid by private donations. No tax dollars were involved.

Let's hope Idaho Democrats don't make that mistake again. Better to join forces and avoid the expense and immense load of work the caucuses entail.

The caucus procedure, which requires people to be present for a stupefying length of time, discriminates against potential attendees whose time and/or transportation is limited — families with young children, workers on inconvenient shifts, as well as the homebound elderly.

The caucus traditionally has been a wide-open gathering during which candidates and their supporters can debate positions and recruit supporters. No secret ballots, no backroom bargains. Over time, I have learned to appreciate a secret ballot. It defies the intrusion of bullying, which has popped up in both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns.

In today's world, a caucus is not needed to deliver the latest scoop or argument about the candidates. You have to turn off the TV to escape hearing the latest snippet on Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Sanders. Our cell phones are beeping with the late-breaking news on where the candidates are, and who's talking with whom. There's no mercy.

As for time-stealing, Kootenai County Democratic Party Chairman Paula Neils recruited more than 160 trusty volunteers, who arrived early on March 22 and left many brutal hours later. Several eager participants came during their work breaks and didn't have time to stay for the vote. No absentee voting was available, even for people who have trouble physically getting around.

One self-labeled "old fogey" complained that the caucus was too much like a football game — with everybody yelling for one team and against the other.

The wild and raucous enthusiasm that new, young voters bring to the political scene is a happy byproduct of a caucus. Their gusto enlivens the space, even if their noise hurts the ears. It is both wonderful and awful. That passion and energy can be a powerful booster shot for the electoral process — so long as it is pointed in the right direction.

But campaign rallies for presidential candidates are one thing, and voting to choose a president is quite another. Today, politics is already too much of a shouting match. The quiet of the voting booth would do us all good.

I attended my first caucus in 1972 as one of many young, idealistic, gullible, undoubtedly loud supporters of Sen. George McGovern. McGovern lost the presidency but gained millions of Democratic Party workers, many of whom still contribute time and money to the party today.

But party loyalty is clearly a lukewarm factor in this year's decision-making. Anxiety, anger and emotions are running high. This volatile presidential campaign has six more months, a few November days and a load of surprises for us to endure before we know who will be the new leader in the White House. Our job is to just hang on for the ride. ♦