With wild lead changes and candidates crashing spectacularly only to come back from the dead, nobody would call the GOP presidential race a smooth ride to the nomination. But it’s been almost as turbulent behind the scenes, where the actual process of coordinating and carrying out certain contests has hit snag after snag. Republicans around the country are struggling with an array of problems in states that use a caucus to determine their delegates this year, battling problems from low turnout to mysteriously missing votes.
Caucuses, which require citizens to actively participate in a mini-convention with their neighbors in which supporters of each candidate make the case for their vote, are hailed by supporters as a way to energize the grassroots with a more involved approach than primaries. But they’re more time-consuming and complicated than simply dropping off a ballot, setting up more barriers to participation and creating more potential for things to go awry.
The next caucus state is Saturday in Missouri, where already state officials are struggling to explain a mess of rules that will likely leave the winner unclear for weeks after the initial vote. This week voters at county caucus will directly select delegates, bound to no candidate, who will in turn elect delegates at a future district-level convention in April to attend a state-level convention in June to finally pick the state’s choice of delegates to attend the Republican national convention in Tampa. All this after the state already has held one non-binding straw poll vote already, back in February.
After a contentious GOP caucus and recount process, Maine Republican leaders are looking to return to a primary the next time around. It’s one of several states where faulty caucuses have led Republican critics to call for ditching the format for good.
Mitt Romney finished on election night with a small lead over Ron Paul, but various issues with the process prompted a much-disputed recount before Romney could be confirmed as the winner. In the most egregious case, the state party chair claimed that some votes weren’t initially counted because the e-mailed counts ended up in his spam folder.
Maine State Senate President Kevin Raye (R) is now pushing a bill that would switch to a more simple primary format. The state’s governor, Paul LePage (R), supports the move as well.
“I think for many people the caucuses this year crystallized support for a presidential primary,” Raye told the Bangor Daily News. “I have long expressed a preference [for a primary] because I believe it encourages wider participation of Maine voters and I believe it increases the likelihood of Maine being considered relevant in the process.”
Maine isn’t the only state to run into problems. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses ended up wrongfully declaring Romney the winner on election night when a final count revealed he finished behind Rick Santorum. Santorum was outraged after being denied a clear victory by the state GOP — and the crucial momentum a win in the nation’s first contest brings. State party Chairman Matt Strawn resigned shortly afterward.
Nevada also had troubles with its caucus, where results trickled in at a crawl. Officials waited until hours after the vast majority of caucuses were finished in order to complete a small evening caucus in Las Vegas set up for Jewish and Seventh Day Adventist voters who couldn’t vote on a Saturday morning. Afterward the state party had to contend with a variety of irregularities in the low-turnout vote, including some precincts that turned in more votes than they had registered attendees. And for all the trouble, the state GOP had little to show for its effort in terms of registering new voters after deciding not to allow participants to join the party on-site amid conservative fears of voter fraud.
Republican critics say the string of difficult caucuses should give the GOP pause as it works out the next election cycle’s rules.
“I don’t think Iowa will change, but a lot of the other states and especially the New Hampshires and Nevadas of the world will be taking a look at what they did and perhaps make adjustments,” Matt Gagnon, a GOP strategist who has been pushing his home state of Maine to switch to a primary, told TPM. “A caucus lends itself to these issues a lot more than a primary because you have way fewer people participating — so if it’s close, rather than several thousand votes separating it, there might be several votes. But more than that, it’s a process that has the most dedicated party activists while the regular voter doesn’t really get to weigh in on it.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.