By: Alexander Reinert
As the nation prepares to vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential primaries, Kansas Democrats made news this past summer as they joined a growing list of states shifting away from caucuses to determine the allocation of their state delegates to the national convention. Citing efficiency purposes, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt said that she believes a primary will attract more participants than a caucus. Indeed, about 39,000 people participated in Kansas Democrats’ presidential caucuses in 2016—an unusually high turnout largely due to the enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Democrats stuck to a traditional caucus format in 2016, whereby participants gathered in groups by the candidates they preferred after listening to speeches by candidate representatives. As a result, some meetings took several hours, which discouraged participation, especially in rural areas of the state where participants faced long drives to get to caucus sites. “People did not want to do that again,” Hiatt said. “It just ended up being a little chaotic.”
Consequently, the party decided to switch to a party-run primary in its May 2, 2020 contest. By streamlining the process with simple voting methods and mail-in ballot options, the party hopes to boost participation in the process. Furthermore, Kansas Democrats decided to implement a ranked-choice voting regime in which voters rank all the candidates on the ballot, rather than select only one candidate. If a candidate does not receive 15% percent of the vote, that candidate’s votes would be redistributed based on the voters’ second choices. That process would continue until all the remaining candidates had at least 15%, and delegates to the national convention would be awarded proportionally.
The party expects its primary to cost about $200,000, depending on the turnout. Kansas had state-funded presidential primaries in 1980 and 1992, with state election officials overseeing the voting. The legislature passed a law calling for a state-run primary to be held every four years after 1992, but the legislature repeatedly canceled the law before the scheduled primaries because of the potential cost to the state. The Kansas Legislature officially repealed the law in 2015 and left it to the state political parties to determine how to handle voting. Both parties chose to administer caucuses in 2016. However, the Kansas Republicans’ caucus was set up so that voters could simply cast their ballots and leave quickly, without having to participate in the candidates’ rallies and speeches. Notably, Kansas Republicans recently decided to forego a presidential nominating contest in 2020 in a move that will help President Trump consolidate party support as he seeks reelection.
With this departure from precedent, Kansas Democrats join a growing list of states switching to primaries in 2020. In 2016, fourteen states administered caucuses in the Democratic presidential nominating contest. However, in 2020, only four states—Iowa, Nevada, Maine, and Wyoming—are set to continue using caucuses. Reforms to the national party’s delegate-selection rules were a significant factor in causing state parties to make this switch. The DNC rules now say that state parties should try to use government-run primaries if available. If a state does not provide for government-run primaries, then party-run contests must allow absentee or early voting, same-day voter registration, and implement procedures for recounts. These reforms may have a significant impact on the presidential nominating contest, and one expert has forecasted that moving to a primary system “could help turnout increase 17-18%.” If administered successfully, the primary system may completely supplant the caucus in the coming years. Time will tell whether the party-run caucus goes the way of the dinosaur!