With the high level of excitement surrounding the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination, states saw an unprecedented level of participation in their primaries and caucuses. While this is great for the party overall, it created unforeseen problems in some caucus states.
The Democratic Change Commission is mandated to make appropriate recommendations for new criteria that will ensure caucuses are adequately planned, organized and staffed; take place at times and locations to maximize participation; use appropriate balloting measures; and provide candidates with lists of elected delegates for the upper tiers of the caucuses and an opportunity to communicate with those delegates before upcoming caucus tiers. Additionally, the Commission is to consider ways that caucuses can be organized to encourage the maximum ability of Democratic caucus-goers to participate, including in particular making absentee participation available in caucuses.
With respect to these issues, the Commission found that:
- There is a participation barrier in caucuses which limits the ability of the elderly, shift workers, students, members of the military and others with certain hindrances on their ability to take part in the process. For those who are unable to attend the meeting during which the caucus is held, there is currently no way to cast a ballot. Some Commission members expressed interest in exploring methods for these groups of people to participate whether it be by absentee ballot, proxy voting, or another unexplored method, provided that the collaborative participation aspect of the caucus system be respected to enable party building and community involvement.
- States have varying levels of experience with running caucuses. Some states have recently switched to caucus systems because of the inability to obtain state funding for a primary, while other states have held caucuses as a matter of preference for a long period of time. The Commission agreed that states of all levels of experience could benefit from peer group collaboration where experienced caucus states could share their expertise with other states.
- The Commission discussed the fact that there are various ways caucus systems are being used in the Democratic nomination process. It is important to remember the diversity of the caucus process being used across the country, and that the rules in a state may be set by tradition, state law, or party requirement.
- The Commission found that in order to have a successful caucus process from beginning to end, it is critical that there be adequate preparation for all stages of the caucus process. This preparation includes everything from appropriate site selection to caucus participant education. After the caucus meetings, there needs to be timely reporting of not only the numerical results, but also the names of delegates elected to the next level of the process.
Commission members from caucus states, as well as speakers addressing the Commission, stressed that caucuses can be a great advantage to the party base. For example, the Kansas Democratic Party acquired
25,000 new email addresses, 8,000 new volunteers and several strong new candidates for office because
of the tremendous participation in its 2008 caucuses.21 Many states are able to use these events not only
to select a nominee for President, but also as a party building exercise and a way to begin to organize the
state for the general election. Commission members stressed the importance of giving the Democratic
National Committee and the Rules and Bylaws Committee oversight of these caucus processes so that
certain benchmarks are met in the organization and preparations of each step of a caucus process. The
Commission also stressed, however, that this oversight serve to help state parties plan and run their
caucuses, and not place onerous restrictions or cost increases on states.
In balancing these considerations, the Commission considered the development of a set of “Best Practices,” which would provide guidelines to be used by caucus states in implementing their delegate selection processes. These “Best Practices” would provide certain benchmarks that are important in the planning and facilitation of caucuses. The RBC could establish a committee of caucus state representatives to provide a peer-to-peer system of advising state parties and the RBC on these “Best Practices.”
Accordingly, the Commission recommends for the 2012 nominating process:
- A set of “Best Practices” should be adopted to provide caucus states with a set of benchmarks to achieve leading up their caucuses. States will be required to periodically show that they have met, or are working toward meeting, these benchmarks.
- The Rules and Bylaws Committee will oversee these state submissions and ensure that states are making adequate progress. They may require additional submissions from caucus states that are slow to meet benchmarks.
- The “Best Practices” will take into consideration the fact that there are very different types of caucuses being utilized within the party, as well as the fact that some state parties have limited resources with which to work.
The Commission wishes to emphasize openness and the ability for as many Democrats to take part in the caucus process as possible while still honoring the spirit of caucuses as an institution and an in-person party building tool. Appropriate locations, staffing, and planning will be necessary. Equally important will be efforts to educate caucus participants as to the way the process works ahead of time, especially those who may have been underrepresented in the past or are new to the process entirely.
21 Larry Gates testimony at October 24 Democratic Change Commission meeting