To caucus or not to caucus—that is the question

To caucus or not to caucus—that is the question

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Since 1992 Colorado has used a caucus system to nominate people to run on their party’s ticket for public offices. Now that party is using the anger generated as a means of killing off the caucus system entirely.

Colorado Springs World Arena, site of next Saturday's Republican State Convention

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., April 3, 2016—Colorado held its primary caucus on Super Tuesday but there was no presidential poll associated with it this year. That annoyed quite a number of people who felt “disenfranchised” by it.  The lack of a poll—binding or not—was the decision of the Colorado Republican Party Central Committee.

Now that party is using the anger generated as a means of killing off the caucus system entirely.

Since 1992 Colorado has used a caucus system to nominate people to run on their party’s ticket for public offices. The practice is written into state law.

The caucus system was originally a progressive reform intended to take decisions out of the “smoke-filled rooms” and bring the people into the process. Colorado actually has a kind of hybrid system.

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On caucus night people gather in their neighborhood precincts. The precinct caucus is the building block of Colorado’s parties. Here attendees elect leaders and delegates to county and state assemblies. They debate issues and hold non-binding “straw polls” indicating the consensus of the caucus.

Delegates to country and state assemblies are not formally bound by those votes—but guess who gets elected to represent the caucus? The system isn’t perfect, but that’s democracy.

At the County Assembly, which in El Paso County was held last Saturday, people competed to be nominated for county-wide offices. This year there were a couple of hotly contested county commissioner races; in 2014, the county sheriff’s and treasurer’s races were the big contests.

Colorado also has an “opt-out” clause. If a person doesn’t want to run through the caucus process, he or she can “petition-on” to the ballot. Using this method, the candidate collects a certain number of signatures, pays a filing fee and gets on the ballot automatically.

When the tea party arose in 2010, party veterans told us not to petition but rather to use the caucus system. It wasn’t sporting, they said; it avoided the will of the people. Liberty-minded veterans taught us the system.

Today liberty-minded grassroots activists all but own the Colorado Republican Party. Guess who petitions on to the ballot, going around the caucus system?

Those old-time establishment candidates with deep pockets (or with friends with deep pockets) to hire petition-gatherers, pay fees and buy advertising.

People like Bob Beauprez, who petitioned on the ballot for governor in 2014. As two solid conservatives who went through the caucus process split the conservative vote, Beauprez won the primary. And lost the general election.

People like Bob Gardner, former state representative running for State Senate District 12. He is running against conservative State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who did go through the assembly process. Gardner is supported by a PAC funded by Bob Beauprez. Coincidence?

What good is a caucus, anyway?

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Aside from the democratic nature of the process, the system is a means of renewing the actors in the political process. Every assembly someone asks, “Raise your hand if this is your first assembly,” and every time 40 to 50 percent of delegates raise their hands. These are the people who provide a ready pool of volunteers for the party and for political campaigns and who signal, by their votes, what the party stand should be on any number of issues.

What’s the bad news, then?

According to El Paso County Republican Party Chair Jeff Hays, it costs too much. Although much of the cost of the assemblies is borne by delegate fees, he would prefer the taxpayers to shoulder the entire burden by holding a state primary. That’s all taxpayers — party or no party affiliation, voters or not.

But that’s not all. In a recent Colorado Springs Gazette opinion piece, he wrote that everyone seeking elective office—from the precinct chair on up—should have to collect signatures and pay a filing fee.

Those volunteers, in addition to giving their time, would have to collect signatures and pay a fee for the privilege. Who will do that?

Only politicians. And that’s probably the point: get those pesky “factions,” as he calls them, out of the process. Put it back into the hands of the party bosses who, after all, know what’s best.

What of the presidential primary? What of Colorado’s place in nominating season sun?

Regardless of the merits of the caucus system, the Colorado Republican Party could have held a straw poll or a binding poll if they had wanted to. The Democrats did.

Party leadership, deputy state chair Derek Wilburn said, decided against a poll because we might have sent delegates to Cleveland who would have committed to vote for a person who had already dropped out of the race.

Colorado Republicans have a pretty good recent record of doing just that. In 2008 it was Romney, who dropped out a week later. In 2012, we picked Rick Santorum.

That calculus misses the essential point: Colorado delegates have always been “unbound.” This year that’s pretty significant indeed.

This coming Saturday, delegates elected by the people at their precinct caucuses will elect delegates at the state convention to represent them in Cleveland. Those delegates will be formally unbound, but those voting for them will know with certainty which presidential candidate they will vote for.

The presidential candidates know it, too.

Ted Cruz will be at the state assembly on Saturday. Rumor has it that Donald Trump may show as well.

Primary states like North Dakota have had their moment in the spotlight. Party bosses there are deciding who the delegates will be.

Colorado and Pennsylvania are the only two states sending unbound delegates to Cleveland, a total of 108 votes.

If people want notoriety for Colorado in the presidential nominating process, they have it. If they want participation in the election process from Super Tuesday through to the first Tuesday in November, the caucus is the ticket.

Save the caucus, save grassroots democracy. And bring back the straw poll.

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