Editorial: Caucuses need standards

Editorial Board

If there is one lesson to learn from this year’s Republican Party primary season, it is that the Republican National Committee may want to consider imposing basic, standardized requirements on its state parties’ caucus procedures. Although this year’s problems may not approach scandal, the caucuses have been plagued with embarrassing mistakes.

Caucuses are different from primaries. In the primary, voters cast their ballots at their precincts just like on voting day, but caucuses feature extensive political participation and argument by ordinary people. Like the New England tradition of town-hall meetings, caucuses often are touted as valuable relics of an engaged political tradition.

However, allowing each state party to determine whether it has a caucus or primary, while simultaneously allowing each state party to determine its own caucus procedures, is a dangerous affair. Iowa’s failure to count and report ballots accurately, causing politicos to question Iowa’s relevance in national politics and whether we should insist on retaining our first-in-the-nation caucuses, serves as a primary example.

Initially, the Republican Party of Iowa declared Mitt Romney the winner of the Jan. 3 contest, stating that he beat former Sen. Rick Santorum by eight votes. A few weeks later, after recounting some of the votes, they declared that Santorum actually won the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes. That announcement was made even though they were unable to count the votes of eight precincts. Chairman Matt Strawn resigned because of the confusion.

The next caucus, Nevada, also had problems. While the state party refused to declare a winner until all its results were in, news agencies made their own speculations based on entrance and exit polling.

Maine was the most recent example. The state party omitted results from some precincts in its count and did not count the votes of one county that had delayed its caucuses because of inclement weather. As a result, they too were forced to re-examine their announcement that Romney won their Feb. 11 caucuses in the following days.

Ongoing recounts as other campaign events occur means that potentially wrong results will go on to influence the political process. The prospect of news reports becoming self-fulfilling prophecies — when later voters vote for candidates because of their previous electoral successes — are bad enough. Self-fulfilling prophecies based on the wrong facts are even worse.

The Republican National Committee can impose minimum reporting requirements and standardized vote-counting procedures and can do so without compromising the individuality of the state Republican parties or leveling all Republicans everywhere into people who toe the national line. Such steps are probably necessary to maintain the integrity of the party’s internal activities and broader appeal.