Primary Importance

Not long ago, an offbeat-science webcomic called “What If?” dealt with the question “What would happen if one tried to funnel Niagara Falls through a straw?”

The answer, naturally, was nothing good. Even if such were physically possible, the author noted – which, naturally, it isn’t – the resulting high-pressure stream would have the power of a small star. “(I)ts heat and light would quickly raise the temperature of the planet, boil away the oceans, and render the whole place uninhabitable,” author Randall Munroe wrote.

In other words, too big a flow plus too small a container equals a big mess. Which is something that any Colorado county clerk’s office should be able to attest to after Super Tuesday.

You’ve seen the news stories. If you went to the caucuses – particularly, in this state, the Democratic ones – you may have experienced it yourself. A voting system built for small, orderly numbers of people was pushed way past its carrying capacity. Some voters got to stand in long lines. Some wound up meeting outdoors due to fire codes. Some waited more than an hour to begin the two-hour long sessions and still wound up turning people away.

The participation, admittedly, was exciting. But for many, it was also infuriating. More than one voter told local media that they couldn’t even find a place to get out of their car and vote – and even on the Democratic side, the eye of the hurricane here, the number of actual participants still added up to about 14 percent of active voters, according to one report.

Is it just me, or is something off about that?

Yes, caucuses have a quaint, traditional feeling to them. Yes, among those who participate, they do allow for a very personal sense of community engagement and discussion. Yes, they’re typically less expensive than a primary election.

But if what you want is for people to be heard – a lot of people, as many people as possible – then caucuses just flat out don’t work.

They don’t work for the chronically ill or disabled who might be able to spend a few minutes at a voting booth or on a mail-in ballot, but not two hours at an evening meeting. (Count my wife Heather among those, by the way.)

They don’t work for late-shift workers who can’t take two hours or more away from their job to caucus and debate.

They don’t work for single parents who can’t find a babysitter. For families without a car who don’t have evening bus service. For a number of people in a number of situations, particularly in groups that could be called “the least of these.”

And when the numbers get too high, they simply don’t work, period.

Simply put, as a means of encouraging democracy, a caucus system is better at leaving people out than inviting them in.

Colorado used to have a primary election. Isn’t it time to revive it?

Sure, it costs more. Sure, you maybe lose that sense of neighborhood debate. But gaining increased access to the ballot box is worth it all. Lines may still be long, but they’re no longer insurmountable. No one has to be left out because of limited circumstances, either their own or the polling place’s.

A caucus may have sounded like a good idea to some in 2003. But I don’t think there can be any doubt about its fitness now. It’s like running a Stanley Steamer in the Indy 500 – simply the wrong vehicle for the job.

Just as at Niagra Falls, we’ve simply come to the last straw.

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