An early “Virtual Caucus” followed by a late “Top-Four” primary – a realistic alternative for the U.S. Presidential election?

It’s late January of 2021. Donald Trump is gone, and Joe Biden is in. After eighteen months of non-stop hate-mongering (by both sides), the 2020 U.S. Presidential election is finally over. Arguably, the 2020 election was even worse than the 2016 election. How is that even possible? Will the 2024 election be any better? What about 2028, 2032, …?

It’s no surprise the “general” election has devolved into a negative “smear-fest” between just two viable candidates – the vast majority of voters nationwide are denied any meaningful opportunity to participate in the “primary” election. Most major party voters are disenfranchised – simply because they don’t live in a state with an early primary or caucus. Meanwhile, Independent and Minor party voters are legally excluded – simply because they refuse to join a major party. Predictably, the top two presidential candidates represent only a small, often extreme portion of the total electorate.

But how to replace the two existing partisan primaries – without creating an even bigger mess? Some Democrats seem to be on the right track. In 2019, organizers in both Iowa and Nevada made plans to conduct “Virtual Caucasus” during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The goal was to increase voter participation. Initially, these plans were derailed by the DNC over security concernsCybersecurity is very real – but, if this issue could be mitigated, a “nationwide” virtual caucus could provide every elector in every state with an equal opportunity to participate.

Strangely, a late nonpartisan primary drastically reduces the cybersecurity issues surrounding a virtual caucus. In 2020, Alaska became the first state to establish a Top-Four primary with Ranked Choice voting in the general election. This process eliminates vote-splitting in the general election and the exclusion of unaffiliated voters in the primary. It also ensures the general election is not a “choice between the lesser of two evils.” It does not, however, address the issue of vote-splitting in the primary. Combining an “early” virtual caucus (conducted from January to May) with a “late” Top-Four primary (in September) could address all the critical issues simultaneously. (cybersecurity, exclusion, disenfranchisement, and vote splitting in both the general and primary elections)

Illustrating the process by example

Oregon is a “closed” primary state. All minor party and Independent voters are legally excluded from participating in the primary. By law, every unaffiliated voter receives a blank “Nonpartisan” primary ballot for U.S. President. At the same time, Minor Party and Independent candidates cannot file for candidacy until 15 days after the primary election – effectively excluding them from the primary election as well.

Oregon 2016 Presidential Primary Ballots

It turns out the issue of exclusion is mute because the Oregon presidential primary occurs in May. Typically, the two nationwide presidential primaries are effectively “over,” and the party nominations “locked up” before any Oregon voter even has a chance to cast a ballot. As a practical matter, all Oregon voters are disenfranchised – regardless of party affiliation.

The good news is, the state of Oregon maintains an extensive, secure online database of just about everything having to do with elections. Candidates may file for office or withdraw online. The “Voters’ Pamphlet” of candidate information is online. The entire campaign finance reporting system is online. Voters can register online, change party affiliation online, check election results online, …, everything. In addition, Oregon has “motor-voter registration” and “vote-by-mail.” (Not surprisingly, Oregon also has very high election turnout and participation.) For the most part, Oregon voters view technology as a potential solution to intractable problems – not a threat.

Establishing a virtual presidential caucus in Oregon requires only a few additions to the existing online database. Candidates for elective office can already file for office online. Individual voters can already login and change their registration information as well. (address, party affiliation, etc.) Voters simply need the ability to endorse candidates who have filed for office. At the beginning of each month, the Oregon Secretary of State publishes a summary of the current election statistics. (Voter registration by party, by county, etc.) This summary could easily be augmented by the addition of a candidate “Endorsement Report.” (A listing of each candidate and the number of voter endorsements they have accumulated.) 

Voters could begin endorsing their “preferred” candidates on January 1st. The first “endorsement report” would be published on February 1st. Thereafter, an updated endorsement report would be posted on the first of each month thru July 1st. The endorsement report may change radically from month to month. Not only because more voters begin to participate but also because voters already participating may log in to their account and modify their endorsements at any time.

For the U.S. Presidential election, each voter will likely follow both the state endorsement reports and the nationwide presidential primary. (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Super Tuesday, …) Ideally, individual voters will modify their endorsement – if it appears their preferred candidate is not performing well (or if their preferred candidate withdraws.) The final endorsement report, published on July 1st, could then be used by major political parties to assign delegates to the national conventions. This process is a “Virtual Caucus,” and it could be established in any state – not just Oregon.

A draft constitutional amendment for Oregon is less than two pages long, and can be downloaded by clicking the button below.

There’s no reason to limit the virtual caucus to major party candidates and voters only. (Under the 1st and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution – that’s illegal anyway.) All candidates and voters (including Independent and Minor Party) must be allowed to participate. The monthly endorsement report would simply break down the endorsements by voter affiliation. (number of endorsements by affiliated voters, number of endorsements by unaffiliated voters, etc.) Each political party may then decide which endorsements to use in selecting its’ own delegates and nominees.

Political parties are “private” organizations. As such, they have the right to ignore unaffiliated voters when selecting their nominees and delegates. It might not be prudent to do so, however. The virtual caucus, conducted over six months from January thru June, is followed by a nonpartisan “Top-Four” primary in early September. “Ignore Independents in July – and Independents may ignore your candidate in September.” A nonpartisan primary is of critical importance. (Checks and Balances)

The Oregon primary and general elections would continue to be conducted by mail – just as they are now – with all existing security precautions in place. Augmenting the existing security precautions for the online database is always possible and always desirable – but not necessary. The virtual caucus is “non-binding” and only serves to provide voters with information about the relative level of voter support among individual candidates. Voters and political parties may use this information to consolidate their support behind the best candidates in the primary election. (Ranked Choice voting could also be used in the primary.)

Eliminating Petition Signatures

Currently, in Oregon, Independent candidates qualify for the general election ballot by collecting petition signatures. Called a “showing of support,” this serves to deter “frivolous” candidates. The number of signatures required is typically 1% of active voters. For the 2020 general election, Independent statewide candidates in Oregon needed to collect over 20,000 signatures. At the same time, each political party is allowed to nominate a single candidate for each office. These candidates are not required to make a showing of support because each political party “owns” (is legally entitled to) a spot on the general election ballot. Predictably, Independent candidates rarely qualify for the ballot – and frivolous partisan candidates are common.

Oregon also has a broad initiative and referendum process. Unfortunately, qualifying an initiative or referendum for the general election ballot also requires collecting petition signatures. (Nearly 150,000 for a constitutional amendment in 2020.) Over the years, fraudulent signatures have been submitted for verification so many times that strict signature gathering laws have been enacted. While necessary, these restrictions have significantly increased the cost of gathering signatures. It’s now nearly impossible for any “grass-roots” organization to mount a petition drive – with volunteer signature gatherers. Wealthy individuals and corporations are the only entities capable of mounting a successful petition drive – with paid signature gatherers.

The secure online database and virtual caucus provide a simple, fair, and effective means to eliminate petition signatures altogether. For candidates, the monthly endorsement report can be augmented to include each office’s total number of endorsements. After the virtual caucus ends on July 1st, only candidates that accumulate 1% or more of these total endorsements qualify for the primary election ballot. Qualification for the primary election ballot should be based on real voter support rather than financial wealth.

Like candidates, sponsors of initiative and referendum ballot measures already file online in Oregon. The existing online database only needs to be modified to allow individual voters to endorse ballot measures that have already been filed. During the six-month virtual caucus period, measure sponsors may use whatever means are appropriate (and legal) to convince voters to log in to their account and endorse a specific measure. After the virtual caucus ends on July 1st, only measures that accumulate a minimum number of endorsements qualify for the primary election ballot. (2%, 3%, …) After the primary election, only measures that garner an even higher threshold of votes (45%?) qualify for the general election ballot.

The “Virtual Caucus” – a realistic alternative.

Every four years, a presidential primary and general election take place – and every four years, there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth when manipulation of the election process occurs. (It always happens.) For decades, there has also been an ongoing demand to replace the two existing partisan presidential primaries with a nonpartisan primary. The proposition is, of course, absurd. Partisan primaries would need to be replaced by a nonpartisan primary in all 50 states simultaneously – or chaos would ensue. This can only be accomplished with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a practical matter, it isn’t realistic to believe this will ever happen.

In contrast, combining a “Virtual Caucus and Top-Four” is a type of hybrid primary. Unlike a nonpartisan primary, (which is completely incompatible with partisan primaries,) a hybrid primary absorbs the partisan primary process. As a result, a virtual caucus could be adopted in any state without affecting the partisan primaries or caucuses nationwide. The example used above assumed the two national partisan primaries would be ongoing long after the “Virtual Caucus and Top-Four” were adopted in Oregon.

It should be noted that, eventually, there will be a conflict between the outcome of any nonpartisan primary and other partisan primaries nationwide. This conflict is inevitable because partisan primaries were designed to ensure ownership by the party leadership – not the voters. In 2020, Republicans canceled the primary election in 5 states – and all the associated delegates were simply assigned to Donald Trump. Elections belong to the voters – not state legislatures, not congress, not candidates, and definitely not political parties. As such, the voters, individually and collectively, decide who the top candidates are – in the virtual caucus, the Top-Four primary, and the general election.