A (delayed) assessment of the caucus process....
I consider the Democratic caucus that I attended on February 5 to be one of the stupidest uses of 2+ hours of my time in recent memory. It is simply incomprehensible that in the United States in 2008 there is still anyone who considers this the best way to run a primary.
This was the first caucus I've ever attended, so I'm going to describe the experience for those who remain blissfully ignorant of how a caucus is managed. At the primary site I was assigned to, I would guess there were approximately 450 people. Registration began at 6:15, so I think people were checking in until 6:45 or 7. Then we got to all cram into an elementary school gymnasium and listen to a quick introductions, followed by two minute speeches on behalf of the candidates (presidential as well as lower offices). To be kind, not all of these speakers were exactly the best representatives the candidates could have offered. But even considering the better ones, it felt entirely appropriate that we were in an elementary school, because that was the level it felt like the speeches would have been more appropriate for.
After the speeches were done, we broke into precinct groups, and then the real idiocy began. There were about 150 people at this point, now packed into the school's library. The organizer asked for a show of hands of who was for Clinton - A SHOW OF HANDS?!?! - and then began going around the room trying to count hands. A suggestion from the crowd led to each person counting off a number as they put their hand down. The same counting process happened for Obama. At this point the groups were separated and the numbers needed to be re-counted to make sure they were accurate - again, several suggestions from the crowd on how to ensure accuracy, and then finally it was decided to hand in the voter cards we had been given at registration to the leader of each sub-group.
Hmmm. What would be a good way to accurately count the votes? It turns out that a lot of states have actually figured out a remarkably efficient and accurate way to count votes. It's called a ballot box. Sitting around an elementary school library raising my hand to have my vote counted, and having spent an hour and a half to get to that point, was utterly ridiculous. The process then proceeded to elect delegates to represent our groups vote, and then I'm guessing it moved on to the voting for lower offices. I say "guessing" because at 8:15, two hours after I arrived at the caucus site, I called it a night and headed home (as had a large number of the people who had been there for the presidential vote.)
All in all, I consider this to be the most inefficient, disenfranchising, ridiculous process for engaging the populace in the election process. The notion that this encouraged some sort of meaningful discussion of candidates didn't prove true for me, and the biggest topic of discussion I noted was a discussion of the stupidity of the caucus process. I suspect many people simply didn't feel like spending an entire evening in order to cast their vote and decided to stay home. There were a lot of people whose spouse was home with the kids because they didn't have a sitter to take care of the kids while they spent 2+ hours in order to vote. I also resented having to publicly state who they're chosen candidate will be - I think I should be allowed to have my voting preferences remain private if I should so choose.
If it were a simple polling process, I can't help but think there would be higher levels of attendance generally and higher engagement in all of the lower-level races. I just read a George Will article in which he argues the value of caucuses in part because their annoying and time-consuming nature weeds out the people with only slight or moderate preferences and taps into the more rabid supporters. While allocating concert tickets based on who's willing to camp out for them the night before may be reasonable, I don't think that's a sensible way to elect a president. Frankly, I've driven by some of those lines, and most of those people aren't the type I'd task with electing our next president.