Thursday, March 31, 2016

On Caucuses and Voter ID Laws

Democrats tend to raise strong objections to voter ID laws.

Republicans claim that they want to impose voter ID laws because they wish to combat voter fraud. However, voter fraud is such a rare thing, for every instance of voter fraud that such a law would prevent, they block a larger number of legitimate votes. This means that the election is less representative of the public will than it would have been without the law (and with a little bit of fraud).

Of course, some argue, the very purpose of the law is to prevent the election from being representative of the public will.

There are certain segments of the population – people who are poor or sick or who lack transportation or who are elderly – who find voter ID laws far more burdensome than people of more established means. These people tend to vote for Democratic candidates. Consequently, Republicans are not actually interested in preventing voter fraud. They are more interested in keeping legitimate voters who would vote for their opponents away from the polls.

During this 2016 primary season for the Democratic Party, thirteen states and several territories will choose convention delegates using a caucus system.

Caucuses have a great deal in common with voter ID laws such that, if one thinks that voter ID laws are fundamentally unfair, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the caucus system is fundamentally unfair for the same reasons.

In order to participate in a primary election (as distinct from a caucus), one simply needs to vote. Many states provide a number of ways to vote so that those who are poor, elderly, sick, immobile, or suffering from severe time constraints can still cast a ballot – therefore allowing their preferences to be noted and reflected in the election results.

A caucus, on the other hand, is like a voter ID law on steroids. In order to participate in a caucus, a voter must travel to the caucus location. One has to sit there – potentially through hours of organizational paperwork and speeches. Then, one’s vote is counted.

One of the differences between voter ID laws and a caucus is that, factoring in some logistical matters, a person gets to choose on which day they will get the ID that will allow them to vote. A political caucus, on the other hand, is held on a specific day - at a specific time. Anybody who does not available at that specific time cannot participate - and the election will not reflect her will.

Another difference is that, for parents (particularly working parents), one can generally arrange for somebody to watch the children while they take care of the task of getting a voter ID or choose a day when the children are otherwise occupied or where they can be conveniently brought along. However, when it comes to a political caucus, both parents have to attend at the same time. If they find a third party to arrange to watch the children, then, unless that third party belongs to a different political party (at least in closed caucuses), then that third party still represents somebody who cannot attend the caucus.

Most caucuses offer some sort of child supervision during the caucus process. However, this does not change the fact that it can be a substantial burden to get the kids bundled up and to take them to the caucus – where, perhaps, they do not want to be. Nor does this provide any help if any of the children should have some event scheduled to start or end while the caucus is ongoing.

In other words, parents will tend to find the burdens of participating in a caucus system to be significantly greater than the burdens of voting. This will result in lower participation.

So far, in this primary cycle, voter participation for caucus states (for which I could find data) has average 9.33% of eligible voters. Whereas voter participation in states that held primary elections has been 31.53%. This means that a state that adopts a caucus system rather than a primary voting system puts up barriers that about 70% of those who would have otherwise voted find too large to cross.

This then raises the question of the degree to which these barriers disadvantage any of the candidates. This is the same as asking whether the type of voter more likely to be found in the 30% that do vote rather than the 70% that do vote are more likely to support any of the candidates. For all candidates for which this is true, we can say that those candidates have picked up extra delegates because of rules that prevented their competitor’s supporters from participating.

I wish to remind the reader, the question of the degree to which the caucus system disadvantages candidates is exactly the same question as the question of whether a voter ID system disadvantages candidates, and whether that should be regarded as a problem.

Rather than consider a number of potential responses to these concerns, I can handle most of them simply by pointing out that the defense of the caucus would be just as useful as a defense of voter ID laws. A logically and morally consistent person doesn’t use an argument in one case that she would reject in a relevantly similar case.

Other arguments may exist and, indeed, there may be good reason for a caucus. Yet, those good reasons, if they exist, must be counted as good reason to give some candidates more delegates than others by adopting rules that prevented, to a greater degree, voters who would have supported an opposition candidate from voting. This fact remains true of the caucus system, even if one can find good reasons for it.

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