What Is A Caucus?
Fort Wayne City Clerk Sandy Kennedy resigned from office on October 13th. State Representative Jud McMillin resigned his position September 29th. These are examples of vacancies in elected offices that are filled by caucuses. This is something that happens fairly frequently in Indiana, but few people understand how it works.
A caucus to fill a vacancy like state representative or city clerk is a gatherings of precinct committee members who choose the new elected official. These precinct committee members must be of the same political party as the person who has vacated the office which means Republican precinct committee members caucused to replace McMillin and Democratic precinct committee members will caucus to replace Kennedy. The precinct committee members must serve in the jurisdiction of the person vacating the office. This means that the Republican precinct committee members who caucused to replace McMillin were from precincts in House District 68 and Democratic precinct committee members who serve in Fort Wayne will caucus to replace Kennedy.
The person elected at a caucus serves out the remainder of the unexpired term. In the case of McMillin, this will mean serving until after the election in 2016 and in the case of Kennedy, this will be until the end of 2015.
While the specific details of a caucus vary, the general outline is the same. Party officials announce a date for the caucus and to whom interested candidates should submit their intent to seek the office. Anyone who meets the qualifications to hold that office can run in a caucus. People who submit their names then have a number of weeks or days to campaign to the precinct committee members.
The candidates, precinct committee members, and party officials all gather at a single location on the announced date and the caucus begins. A party official welcomes people and explains the rules for the caucus and then the candidates usually have an opportunity to address those in attendance. After the speeches, the precinct committee members vote, typically on paper, and the votes are counted. In most cases it takes a majority of those attending to win the caucus. It is common that getting to a majority takes a number of rounds of voting. Once one of the candidates has a majority of votes, that candidate is declared the winner and they will be sworn into office in the following days.
Caucuses are interesting events. You get to see retail politics in action. Candidates are talking directly with voters and supporters are doing the same. If you have a chance to attend one, you should.
This is an attractive route to office for some people because there is a much smaller number of people who have to be targeted with campaign efforts. Think of it this way. There were 14,954 votes cast in the election won by McMillin in 2014[i]. Forty-six precinct committee members elected his replacement. There were 45,847 cast in the election won by Kennedy in 2011[ii]. We don’t know how many Democratic precinct committee members in Fort Wayne will show up for the caucus, but the number will be less than 150.
When a candidate runs in a caucus, the candidate does not have to risk losing a seat the candidate may hold currently. Representative Marlin Stutzman helps to make this point. He cannot run for his seat in the United States House of Representatives and a seat in the United States Senate at the same time. He had to choose one and he has chosen to run for the Senate. If Stutzman does not win the seat in the Senate, he will not be an elected official (until he runs for some other office and wins). Since caucuses are not held when other elections are being held, an elected official can take a chance with many more upsides than downsides because losing a caucus does not mean losing a seat a candidate might hold currently.
Vacancies in elected offices can start a domino effect. We can see this right now because the man elected to replace Jud McMillin is Randall Lyness, a member of the Dearborn County Council. Lyness will have to resign his seat on the county council in order to take his seat in the state legislature. A caucus will be called to elect his replacement. Some of the people who elected Lyness to the state legislature now will get to elect his replacement to the Dearborn County Council.
Being a good precinct committee members takes commitment. You will have to walk your precinct, contact voters, recruit volunteers, and attend more political events than most people care to attend. In exchange for that work, when a vacancy occurs, you will get to be a part of a small group of people who will elect the replacement. Good luck in your race for precinct committee member.