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Close Down the Caucuses

By Froma Harrop

One can assume that the people brawling into the late hours of a weekday night are not representative of your broad electorate, even in Texas. Compare the orderly primary vote in Ohio -- where the results were known by bedtime -- to the weird "Texas Two-Step," which pasted a caucus onto a primary.

Actually, the primary part of the Texas process went smoothly. It was the caucus that led to the unseemly spectacle of pushing and shoving in overcrowded rooms. More worrisome, some caucus leaders apparently didn't understand all the caucus rules.

Down with caucuses. They are not only chaotic, they are undemocratic.

Some decades ago, Democrats decided they didn't want their presidential nominees picked in a smoked-filled room of old party dons. Open the windows, they said. Let the people decide. They even rejected winner-take-all state primaries, which award all the convention delegates to the candidate who scores a majority of votes. Candidates now receive convention delegates relative to their primary vote.

Proportional primaries and the caucus system have both worked against Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama. Clinton consistently won the majority in the big-state primaries in California, New York and now Texas -- but couldn't walk off with all the delegates. With his core of impassioned supporters, Obama has been able to dominate the caucuses.

But this isn't about what helps one candidate or another. It's about whether the Democrats will complete the journey to empowering a broad range of their voters.

In primaries, a voter can show up at the polls anytime between, say, 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., cast a secret ballot and go home or to work. Caucuses are run at a set hour. If you couldn't show up at an Iowa caucus precinct at 7 p.m. on Jan. 3 (a Thursday), you couldn't participate in the nation's first presidential contest. Only 227,000 people attended the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a population smaller than that of Norfolk, Va. Yet Obama's strong showing there provided him with powerful "momentum" -- at least according to the herd analysis.

Caucus rules are often complicated. That, too, turns off many people who will vote in November but don't care enough to go through the caucus hassle. The deliberations are public, and that lets activists bully shy participants into supporting their candidate.

Any event that takes place at a specific hour -- no matter what the hour -- can't be democratic. Nevada Democrats contended that their caucuses were easy to attend because they were held on a Saturday afternoon. The Texan caucuses were scheduled to start after dinner.

But the notion that these caucuses were held outside of normal working hours is a relic of the time when there were normal working hours. Midday or 7 p.m. can be peak times for employees at McDonald's. Wal-Marts may be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., even on Sundays. And workers in 24-7 industries (finance, cyber-retailing, call centers) toil at 3 a.m.

And for those home by 7 p.m., how many are in any mood to drive to a caucus for an evening of strife? After a hard day's work, one might rather see the kids or collapse on the couch. Any event limited to a few hours is impossible for the mother who can't find childcare covering that particular time slot.

We can thank the Texas Two-Step for clearly showing how the caucus method of allotting delegates is cracked. The caucuses favored one candidate (Obama) mere moments after the wider electorate chose the other (Clinton). Democrats cannot truly open the process of choosing a candidate until they close down the caucuses.

Copyright 2008, The Providence Journal Co.

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