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14 Jul 2016
July 14, 2016

Open Primaries and Closed Caucuses

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The Democratic National Committee has control over its Superdelegates, but much less control over whether a state has a primary and how it is conducted, which are matters of state law. Indeed, state Democratic Parties may not be able to influence this process, especially in state with Republican Governors or Legislatures. Thus the DNC can provide direction and even rules (subject to waivers, if state parties have demonstrated provable positive steps to change state laws to comply with party rules), but cannot dictate the process.

You cannot have a more “open” primary than Virginia’s, where we don’t have party registration and thus any registered voter – whether self-described as a Democrat, Republican, or anything else can vote in either party’s primary (but not both). More often an “open primary” is one in which members of a party and registered independents may vote. An argument can be made that party members should be the only qualified voters because they have a greater interest in the party’s success, and allowing non-party members to participate may dilute the impact of minority voters. I think, however, that allowing independents to vote in a Democratic primary expands the party’s base, while minimizing GOP mischief. (Note that under the Virginia Presidential Primary statute, 24.2-545, a party may require primary voters to sign a pledge – the Va GOP has done this four times and three times changed its mind after an avalanche of criticism. The Democratic Party of Virginia has never even considered requiring a pledge under this statute.)

Another concern is that some states have an early deadline for switching parties –we should have Election Day voter registration and Election Day party switching. In the 49 states where we don’t have same day registration, the same deadline should apply for registering and party switching, and that deadline should be as close to Election Day as practical.

The DNC’s view is that states may have open primaries, so long as voters can only vote in one primary and the names of voters voting in the Democratic primary are recorded as doing so. I don’t see a reason to change.

Caucuses are a different story. Prior to the change in DNC rules allowing for an open primary, Virginia Democrats had assembled caucuses or mass meetings. I participated in my first one in 1980 in Albemarle County – the doors closed at 7:30 on a Monday night in April – the Kennedy people went to one side of the room, the Carter people another – the number of congressional district and state convention delegates reflected the number of people in each caucus (assuming your candidate met the 15% threshold). In 1984, the party plan changed to allow unassembled caucuses (or firehouse primaries) where people could vote and then leave. But it was a complicated, burdensome, low participation process. If you are out of town, or can’t spend hours at a party meeting, you can’t participate. After the 2008 primary, where nearly a million people voted in the Democratic Primary (more than all who participated in Democratic Party caucuses in the prior 400 years of Virginia history combined), I don’t see us going back.

But the DNC allows caucuses and other states have them – either because they like them (e.g. Iowa) or the legislature won’t let them have a primary. The 2016 Delegate Selection Rules allowed remote participation in caucuses and that was a good change. I don’t see how the DNC could prohibit caucuses, but, as recommended by the 2009 Change Commission, it should provide guidance as to best practices for, e.g., remote voting, absentee voting, staff training, standardized procedures, and notice requirements, to encourage participation in states that have them.

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