Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Caucuses and Democracy in Iowa and Iraq:
Should Direct Elections Be Held Instead?


Monday, Jan. 19, 2004

For most of the Democratic Presidential hopefuls, today's Iowa caucuses offer the first real chance to prove the strength of their respective campaigns. With polls showing a close and volatile race, the event makes good political theater. Yet political scientists and pundits alike have long questioned whether a caucus system is an appropriate and democratic means of selecting leaders. Even after the Iowa returns come in, that question will remain urgent, and not just here in the United States.

In Iraq, too, a caucus system may be put in place. Under the current plans for the June 30 transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led occupation forces to an Iraqi government, Iraqis would choose the leaders of an interim legislature and executive through a complex system of caucuses throughout the country.

However, the planned Iraqi caucuses have come under fire from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most widely respected religious figure. Ayatollah Sistani and thousands of his Iraqi Shiite supporters would prefer direct elections to select the government.

It is easy to dismiss Sistani's preference as self-serving. Given Iraq's Shiite majority, direct elections would almost certainly result in a Shiite-dominated government in which his followers would wield substantial influence.

Yet if Sistani favors direct elections in Iraq because of their likely result, the same is true of U.S. officials' preference for caucuses there. Chief U.S. Administrator for Iraq Paul Bremer and President Bush favor caucuses at least in part because caucuses would likely lead to greater power sharing with Iraq's minority Sunni and Kurdish population.

Protecting minorities against majority tyranny is a worthy goal. But, as I explain below, the current U.S. plan for Iraq poses a false choice between democracy and rights by arbitrarily adopting an expedited schedule.

Traditional Elections Conceptualize Democracy in Individualistic Terms

In a typical primary or general election, voters show up at the polls on election day and fill out a ballot designating their preference.

There are variations on this theme, of course. Some jurisdictions have begun experimenting with balloting over the Internet as a supplement to more traditional forms of absentee voting. "Instant runoff" systems, which are in use in some places, ask voters to rank candidates, not merely to designate their first choice. And in some parliamentary systems of government, a voter chooses a party rather than a candidate as her choice to represent her interests.

But common to nearly all such systems--especially since the widespread adoption of the "Australian" or secret ballot--is the notion that a voter's decision is fundamentally private. To be sure, we hope that voters will pay close attention to the candidates' positions on important issues of the day, but the ballot of a completely uninformed voter counts equally with the ballot of the president of the League of Women Voters.

Caucus Systems Emphasize Deliberation

By contrast to typical elections, caucus systems emphasize the public aspect of elections, and are far from secret.

Tonight, for example, Iowa Democrats will meet in homes, schools, church basements and other venues to hash out their views on the candidates and their positions. (Republicans will also caucus, but with President Bush facing no challenge for the nomination, their meetings are less momentous.)

Many caucus-goers will arrive with their minds made up, and instructions from the campaign staff of the candidate they support. But others will come with more open minds. And even those with clear preferences must listen respectfully to their neighbors, lest they alienate the undecided. Only after considerable debate will votes be cast, and the results of the individual caucuses then aggregated on a statewide basis.

Needless to say, participation in a caucus demands much more of the voter than a traditional election does. The caucus itself lasts for hours, by contrast with the few minutes it takes to vote (barring the long lines one sometimes encounters at polling places).

Moreover, the expectation that caucus participants will discuss the reasons they support or oppose particular candidates creates an incentive to become well informed about the issues before coming to the caucus: Participants will not wish to appear ignorant to their fellow citizens and, perhaps more importantly, they know that they will be able to make more persuasive arguments if they have read up on key issues.

The Argument in Favor of Caucuses: Deliberation

The deliberative ideal emphasized by caucus systems has much to recommend it. Social science research confirms what common sense would suggest: that people make better decisions collectively--by pooling their knowledge base--than they do when acting simply as individuals.

Indeed, our core democratic institutions are designed to be deliberative. One important reason we send representatives to Washington, and to state capitals, is so that they may work together with other representatives, and jointly arrive at programs that they agree upon. If we had no interest in deliberation by our representatives, we might substitute direct democracy for representation--enacting laws by repeatedly polling the public on their preferences. Occasionally, state governments do resort to ballot initiatives, but that is decidedly an exception, and as experience in referendum-happy California reveals, often problematic.

Another core institution of American democracy, the jury, is also a deliberative body. Judges routinely instruct jurors to listen respectfully to one another, rather than to simply vote as a group of individuals, because our justice system places faith in the capacity of decisionmaking by citizen deliberation.

The High Cost of Caucus Systems

If caucuses lead to more deliberative and thus better decisions, are they clearly superior to traditional elections? Not necessarily.

The principal disadvantage of caucuses is that they are exclusionary in practice. Even if every citizen has a formal right to participate in caucuses, most people simply do not have the time to devote to this democratic ritual.

Although turnout in primary elections is not high, it is substantially lower in caucuses. In 2000, when both parties' nominations were contested, about forty-three percent of the state's voting-age population cast ballots in the New Hampshire primaries, compared with a mere three percent in the Iowa caucuses.

Low turnout might be acceptable if we thought that the voters turning out were a representative (but better informed) cross-section of the population. However, they are not in fact representative. Minorities, the poor, and people with limited education (but with real interests at stake in electoral politics), are less likely to vote than other citizens, and the demands of caucuses only exacerbate this problem.

Accordingly, the deliberative advantages that caucus systems afford may be outweighed by their departure in practice from a different ideal: the ideal that every citizen should have an equal voice in government.

Why the Bush Administration Favors Caucuses for Iraq

Why, then, is the Bush Administration pushing for caucuses rather than direct elections in Iraq?

First, the Administration is concerned about the logistical difficulties of holding direct elections by June in a country that lacks both current reliable census figures and the necessary infrastructure for holding elections.

But logistics are only part of the story. The truth is that the U.S. does not want to bring democracy--in the sense of simple majority rule--to Iraq. The goal of U.S. policy in Iraq is to establish a constitutional democracy.

Roughly speaking, constitutional democracy combines mechanisms of majority rule with protections for the rights of minorities. Without an Iraqi constitution in place that protects the rights of Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities, U.S. policymakers fear that direct elections will lead to the tyranny of the majority: The Shiite victors might persecute non-Shiite Iraqis, in much the way that Saddam Hussein's (Sunni-dominated) government persecuted the Shiites and Kurds.

But the U.S. will be unable to secure real constitutional democracy, including an actual constitution adopted by the Iraqi people, in time for the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. So as a second-best solution, Bremer and Bush have concluded that caucuses--which sacrifice some representativeness in favor of consensus building among different groups--are preferable to direct elections.

An Artificially Expedited Schedule Is Wrongly Forcing the Option of Caucuses

If one were to assume that premature direct elections and caucuses were truly the only available options, then the Administration's view would be reasonable. But the Administration presents a false choice, because its June 30 deadline is unnecessary, and could be extended to allow a more genuine, unforced choice among election possibilities.

Indeed, the deadline seems designed more for U.S. domestic political purposes than for the welfare of Iraq: By formally ceding sovereignty to Iraq in the coming summer, President Bush may hope to dodge the charge of his Democratic challenger that he has sunk the nation into a quagmire.

To be sure, the Administration is not wholly to blame for the unreasonably shortened timetable. Ayatollah Sistani has demanded a general election by May 31. Furthermore, quite apart from the domestic political implications of extending the deadline, President Bush is right to conclude that time is not on the side of the occupation forces. The longer they stay, the more that resentment--and the appearance of illegitimacy--may grow, and the more casualties may be incurred.

But even if time is short, Bush and Bremer should not be playing into the hands of Sistani by sticking with an artificially expedited schedule. If the Administration were willing to wait for the popular ratification of a constitution that guarantees minority rights, Iraq could have direct elections without risking majority tyranny.

A roughly two-year timetable was followed in Afghanistan, and whatever one might choose to criticize about the U.S. post-war effort in Afghanistan, its adoption of a democratic constitution is a signal achievement. A longer timetable might be more appropriate in Iraq, as well.

In recent days, Ambassador Bremer has expressed a new flexibility regarding the procedure by which Iraqi elections should be held, and the Administration has even asked the United Nations for assistance on this score. Let us hope that the same flexibility applies to the crucial matter of timing.

Michael C. Dorf is Professor of Law at Columbia University. His new book, Constitutional Law Stories, is published by Foundation Press, and tells the stories behind fifteen leading constitutional cases.

Was this helpful?

Response sent, thank you

Copied to clipboard