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Primary vs. Caucus vs. Smoke Filled Room: what's best for Kentucky?

The present law in Kentucky is that a candidate can't run for two offices on the same ballot at the same time. Senator Rand Paul is a candidate for re-election to the US Senate. Candidate Rand Paul is running to be the GOP nominee for president. The primary votes for both offices are on the May 2016 ballot.

Paul can't do both. So- getting around the issue calls for a different approach to the presidential nominating process. The answer? Don't have a presidential primary. Have a presidential caucus.

Easy peasy.

The idea was pitched to Kentucky's GOP leadership and taken under advisement. On August 22nd, Kentucky's GOP executive committee will once and for all take up the question of conducting a caucus to select their presidential candidate. Whether the caucus happens depends on somebody coming up with $500,000 to pay for it.

For a complete discussion of Senator Paul and the GOP caucus issue, see Sam Youngman's excellent story in the Lexington Herald-Leader:
For Rand Paul, approval of a GOP caucus in Kentucky might come down to trust

A presidential caucus is "a system of local gatherings where voters decide which candidate to support and select delegates for nominating conventions." A presidential primary is "a statewide voting process in which voters cast secret ballots for their preferred candidates." http://www.factcheck.org/2008/04/caucus-vs-primary/
Primaries are the preferred method of 80% of US states for choosing a presidential candidate. Ten states have caucuses - Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, US Virgin Islands and Iowa. The territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands use the caucus also. All other states and Puerto Rico use primary elections or a combination of the voting formats.

Iowa caucus goers are first to choose a presidential candidate. You know Iowa - that's where presidential candidates did silly things at the 2015 Iowa State Fair like give helicopter rides to kiddies and eat pork chops on a stick. Because it uses the caucus system, Iowa enjoys not only the first contest in the nation, but the one where candidates must persuade voters to show up on a February Iowa night and publicly support them.

Caucuses are more difficult to put on. Meetings have to be organized within each county. Many counties need multiple locations. Caucuses are neither quiet, quick nor anonymous. They are participation sports for the fervent. That's a whole magnitude of commitment over the primary system used in forty states where 10-15% of voters show up, pull a lever/mark a box/color a circle anonymously, then go home.

Kentucky's primary comes trailing along like the old cow's tail as my sainted mama used to say. The vote is held this year on May 17, 2016, the Tuesday after the third Monday of the month.

Forty two of Kentucky's GOP 45 delegates are bound by the outcome of the vote. Of the 53 delegates chosen by the Democrats, 47 are bound to follow primary results. While Kentucky is not the last state to weigh in, traditionally there are few surprises by mid-May before the party summer conventions.

Primaries for president are combined with primaries for other elective offices: voters will also choose candidates for the US House, Senate, state and local offices.

It is expensive to put on an election. Kentucky law puts the burden on fiscal courts with some state reimbursement. Accurate figures are hard to come by (read here nearly impossible). There are 120 different figures for 120 different counties.

There's a good reason why there are 120 answers to the question "how much does it cost to put on an election?" Like snowflakes, no two elections are alike. Payments to election workers for their day at the polls vary slightly county to county. Different ballots must be printed. Costs for advertising in the paper of record are not even close to being standardized. Voting machines aren't free or cheap. Voting machine vendors may be contracted to conduct election schools. Some vendors are paid to attend inspection of machines. There can be overtime for some counties as clerks keep offices open on Saturdays and after hours to accommodate absentee voters. The law specifies that election workers must attend election school and be paid a "minimum" of $10 to attend election school. Most counties pay more than the minimum. And on and on...

How much would a GOP caucus change the dynamics in the 2016 primary election? Not much.

Voters will still be asked to turn out on the 17th. There will be other names on the ballot besides the presidential candidates. If the Dems don't follow the Republicans into a caucus and there is no indication that they will, there will be a Democratic presidential primary on the ballot. The cost of the primary won't be lowered- still have to have election machines, ballots, workers. Advertising the election still has to take place.

On the upside and ignoring the question of who has a half million dollars to spend on a GOP caucus, holding a presidential caucus could be a terrific trial run for changing the way Kentucky makes its choice for president.

Kentucky has toyed with caucuses in the past. The experience was not a long or happy one. Just imagine activists for candidates from outside of the "mainstream" tilting votes in uncomfortable ways. Think of the effect that Bernie Sanders fans showing up in droves at local caucuses. Party faithful to Hillary Clinton might find themselves overwhelmed and outvoted. For that reason and organizational and financial issues, the argument for caucuses was lost in the latter part of the 20th century in Kentucky.

Voting in a presidential primary is not necessarily voting for the candidate. It is voting to have a delegate committed to that candidate. Delegates go to a state convention then some go on to the national convention. Rules both arcane and mystical cover convention voting rules. There have been conventions when delegates were no longer bound to the candidate they were sent to support. When that happened, party leadership took the reins away and decisions were made outside of the public's eye. Candidates were chosen by party leadership.

The "smoke filled room" became synonymous with bosses choosing party standard bearers. The term came into being after Republican Party bosses picked Warren G. Harding as their party's candidate. He went down in history as one of the worst presidents, despite dying in office after three years. But. As bad a system as it could be, it produced the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, after rounds of delegate voting failed to choose a candidate. Discussions on such august journals as Cook Political Report are beginning to take a second look at how we choose our presidential candidates. Bring Back the Smoke Filled Rooms

Republicans may be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. While a caucus is messy, it also is true activist politics. It also doesn't involve money from taxpayers who cannot take part in the process. The growing number of voters registered as Independent cannot participate in primaries or caucuses. Kentucky could remedy that by passing open primaries, but that seems to be as long as shot as getting the Democrats to return to caucuses.

The conventional wisdom is that presidential primaries increase voter interest and drive voter participation. That's not the case in Kentucky. Fewer voters turn up to vote in presidential primary election years than in non-presidential primary years.

Democratic primary turn out 2000- 2015:

All primaries: 24.35%.
Presidential primary years: 22.52%
Non-presidential primary years: 25.4%

Republican primary turn out 2000-2015:

All primaries: 20.64%
Presidential primary years: 15.27%
Non-presidential primary years: 25.14%

With interest in presidential primary voting depressing turnout and caucuses causing consternation among the political parties, the smoke filled room (minus the smoke), is starting to sound like maybe not such a bad idea.


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