Every four years, a quirky political term gains national attention, while never truly gaining a concrete definition: the notorious caucus. If you live in a state that holds a presidential primary, chances are you’ve never bothered to figure out what a caucus is. Unfortunately, the same holds true for those who live in states that hold caucuses as well.

Caucuses are infamously known for low voter turnout, in large part due to confusion about the term itself and the uncertainty of the process in general. Many voters opt to simply abstain rather than educating themselves on the nuances associated with the convoluted political process.

This article serves as an attempt to explain the term in plain language, if for nothing else, to equip you with an additional ineffectual term to impress your political acquaintances.

What Is A Caucus

A caucus can be described as the “cousin” of a state primary. Both serve the same purpose, which is to elect a candidate, however each goes about the process differently. A primary is straightforward. You walk into a polling station, select the candidate of your choice, then go about your business. A caucus on the other hand is not so simple.

It is important to note that the caucus process varies from state to state, yet most caucuses share similar characteristics. In short, a caucus is a public space where voters gather to listen to a pitch from varying candidates (or their representatives).

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After all arguments are made, those who support one candidate are asked to raise their hand or move to one area of the room (e.g. a specific side or corner), and those who support another candidate gather in a different area. After every voter has chosen a group to join, the votes are tallied.

In many states, a candidate must receive a minimum percentage of the vote to qualify, which is often 10-15% of the total number of voters present. Candidates who do not receive the minimum are removed from the ballot, and their voters can be persuaded to join another candidate's group. This process continues until all candidates receive the minimum percentage of votes required, at which time the votes are tallied and deemed official.

Make It Plain

Let’s look at a simple example. Assume 100 voters arrive at a public library. All voters would then listen to a pitch from candidates A, B and C (or their representatives). Afterwards, voters who support candidate A would gather in one corner, voters who support candidate B would gather in the opposite corner, and voters who support candidate C would gather in a different corner.

Let’s assume candidate C only received a total of 8 votes, which is less than 10%. Candidate A and B would then make an additional pitch to sway candidate C’s voters to join their respective groups. Candidate C’s voters can choose to join another group or remain uncommitted. After the final tally is counted, delegates would then be allocated proportionally (or disproportionately) depending on state rules.

Therefore, if 75 people gathered in candidate A's corner, which is equivalent to 75 votes or 75% of the electorate, candidate A would receive 75% of the possible delegates from that specific district (assuming delegates are awarded proportionally). The same process takes place at several caucus locations throughout the state simultaneously, and delegates from each district are added to a candidate’s statewide delegate total. In the event of a tie at a specific caucus location, the tie is broken by a coin toss, or by randomly drawing the highest card from a deck.

Given all the technological advances enjoyed within the last century, we are still choosing election winners with a coin toss - go figure!