North Dakota’s Democratic “firehouse” nominating caucus in the contested presidential race wasn’t really a caucus. It was more of a primary. Voters simply showed up and cast their ballots, instead of haggling in a cumbersome and tedious caucus.
Even so, the voting bogged down as the party’s 14 polling places scattered around the state were clogged by voters eager to vote their preference in a presidential race that has winnowed to a contest between former Vice President Joe Biden, now the clear front runner, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Turnout, the Democratic-NPL announced, was an “incredibly high” 14,546 voters. That’s much, much higher than the 2016 presidential nominating race.
In north Fargo, Democratic voters lined up in long, serpentine queues at the Labor Hall. Many waited for hours. Some even left and came back, hoping the line would shorten. It didn’t.
But the long lines at polling places were more than an inconvenience for voters who shivered in the cold as they waited their turn.
The results were slow to come in — a frustration that didn’t escape the notice of national news broadcasters, some of whom made unflattering comparisons to a “mini Iowa,” a reference to the disastrous Iowa caucuses earlier this year.
Iowa’s results weren’t ready for days. North Dakota was no Iowa, but the problems were another clear indication that allowing parties to run state presidential nominating contests is simply no longer viable.
Caucuses should be eliminated altogether. They take too much time, discouraging all but the most committed voters from participating. As North Dakota’s “firehouse” caucus experience demonstrated, even primary voting run by parties is prone to long lines and slow counts.
That’s no way to run a democracy.
Also, for personal or professional reasons, some voters shun events that are sponsored by political parties. They’re concerned they will be identified with that party and not seen as objective.
We have a logical, effective alternative to party caucuses and primaries in presidential elections.
The North Dakota Secretary of State and 53 county auditors have ample expertise and the apparatus to conduct elections smoothly. They also have a vastly larger network of polling sites and options, making it much easier for voters to participate.
It should be alarming that those who wanted to vote in the Democratic primary in North Dakota had only 14 polling stations and a window of voting that lasted eight hours. Republicans, who have no real contest, provided nine polling places and three hours of polling.
Those paltry voting opportunities show we’re not really serious about one of the most consequential choices we make as voters, choosing our presidential candidates.
Political activists cling to traditions, but the problems that keep surfacing in party caucuses and primaries demonstrate that it's time to move on.
The North Dakota Legislature should change the law to require a presidential primary that is directed by the Office of the Secretary of State and carried out by the county auditors.
“Firehouse” caucuses and party-run primaries need to go.