- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

As dozens of voters roamed the hallways of Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., on Saturday looking for their caucus precincts, one woman summed up the experience: “We should have a primary.”

The caucus system is taking a bruising this year, beginning with Iowa getting its own winner wrong and continuing through Nevada, where voters clashed with volunteers, grumbled about the disorganization and in several instances reportedly chased journalists from voting locations.

The latest caucuses — Tuesday night’s contests in Colorado and Minnesota — are little more than beauty contests because the votes didn’t directly affect the nomination. Both states’ delegates to the nominating convention will be decided later at district and then state nominating conventions.

“The time has come for a national dialogue about the value of caucuses,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this election cycle kicks it off in a serious way.”

At least 10 states and three territories plan to use caucuses to select their delegates to the Republican presidential nominating convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer. Unlike primaries, where voters turn out at the polls like any other election, caucuses involve a bigger investment of time as voters show up, listen to speeches about the candidates and then vote for their choices, as well as for delegates to represent them in eventual district or state conventions.

Caucus opponents have always complained that the process is more restrictive — just 4 percent of Iowans voted in that state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, compared with 19 percent of New Hampshire residents who voted in that state’s primary a week later.

And this year, the caucuses had hiccups.

After hours of seesaw results, Iowa’s GOP announced Mitt Romney the winner in the early hours of Jan. 4. But after reports of clerical errors, the party vacated that declaration two weeks later and announced that Rick Santorum had won the vote.

In Nevada, there was no confusion about the winner — Mr. Romney took about half of all votes cast — but the party took more than 24 hours to conduct its count, and voters said the voting process was painful.

At Green Valley in Henderson, just outside of Las Vegas, school officials wouldn’t open more rooms, which meant two or even three precincts had to meet in the same room, leaving speakers competing with one another to be heard.

Voters and party volunteers clashed over the process, and all sides said they would have preferred a primary.

State party officials are open to the change.

“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” said one top official, who requested anonymity. “It’s outlived its usefulness these days.”

Nevada’s caucus system is written into state law, so it would take an act of the Legislature to shift to a primary.

Some states go back and forth between caucuses and primaries. Missouri will hold both: a nonbinding primary this week, followed later by caucuses that will determine who wins the state’s delegates.

Iowa is most bound to the caucus system, because it is what guarantees the state the first nomination contest and the millions of dollars of economic boost that comes with it.

Nobody answered the phone at Iowa’s GOP office on Tuesday.

Courts have given wide latitude to parties to set up their nomination processes, and some analysts say the caucus system ensures the most committed activists with the deepest knowledge of the issues and candidates end up choosing party nominees. It’s also generally much cheaper than a primary.

But predictions of a rethinking span both parties.

“Enough’s enough. We’ve got to come up with a different system than the caucus system,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates. “They’re unrepresentative, they don’t work well and it’s become far too easy to be dominated by those with the most money.”

Republican operative Ron Bonjean, who co-founded Singer-Bonjean Strategies, said an evaluation is likely to come at the end of this election.

“It would not be a surprise to see a national and state effort to review what happened, introduce potential reforms and examine whether or not they remain effective,” Mr. Bonjean said.

Mr. Panagopoulos, the political scientist, said the 2008 Democratic contest underscored the distortions caucuses can provide. Texas held a primary and caucuses on the same day. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the primary, and Barack Obama won the caucuses, collecting a majority of the state’s delegates along the way.

“It’s hard for me to find a silver lining,” Mr. Panagopoulos said. “People talk about the deliberations and all of that, but at the end of the day, for every good reason offered to retain caucuses, there are several good reasons to get rid of them.”