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Remembering the one and only Arkansas Caucus

An Iowa caucus precinct in Des Moines on caucus night 2020.
Natalie Krebs
Iowa Public Radio
An Iowa caucus precinct in Des Moines on caucus night 2020.

If you hear the word caucus, you very well might say, Huh, that’s a weird word that means nothing to me. For you political junkies, you might think about Iowa. In March of 1984, Arkansas held its first ever caucus. And… its last.

Skip Rutherford is the dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. He said part of the reason for the switch was to move up in the presidential calendar to gain more stature.

“The second part of it was, everybody was sort of infatuated with Iowa,” said Rutherford. “I mean, this is a pretty cool deal. We've never done anything like that. We had primaries in Arkansas. In 1976 in the Democratic primary, we had about 500,000 votes. In the 1980 primary, there were about 440,000 votes. People thought, ‘well, let's give the caucus a whirl.’”

But let’s take a step back. If you were one of those people who said Huh, that’s a weird word that means nothing to me, we should probably define terms here. A primary election is much more common and familiar. Just like in a general election, in a primary, you show up to your polling place at your convenience throughout the day, you receive a ballot, you vote, and you turn it in.

“What a caucus looks like is it was broken out by precincts,” said Rutherford, “and several precincts were then sent to various locations where you cast votes. A lot of caucuses were held in schools or various places.”

You showed up Saturday morning March 17th, signed in, and all around the room were groups holding posters supporting the different candidates. One for Walter Mondale, one for Gary Hart, a sign for Jesse Jackson. And one that said “undecided.”

“So people would be greeted at the door,” Rutherford said, “trying to usher you over to the Hart crowd or to the Jackson crowd or to the Mondale crowd.”

John Davis is the executive director of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. He said the ’84 caucus was chaotic and confusing.

“Iowa handles it better than most because they’ve done it a long time,” said Davis. “But still in Iowa, you see hiccups. It's very rule heavy. We think of a primary as sort of this discrete thing, even with early voting. It's really nice and tidy and then boom, it's done. Caucuses are set up in rounds where certain candidates got certain votes. And now we're going to do this all over again and you can move across your gymnasium over here if now you like these other candidates that are still here and they went all out. It's really confusing. And there's a lot of rules and credentialing who gets to participate. Are you in a precinct? Are you qualified to participate at all?”

As Rutherford said earlier, a half million Arkansans voted in the 1976 primary. The 1984 caucus turnout was drastically lower. The prediction by some officials was a turnout near 40,000. About 20,000 voters actually participated in the 1984 caucus. Reporting from the Arkansas Democrat the following day said some districts had as few as two people attend, with many rural districts counting single digit turnout.

For one, it was time consuming.

“Arkansans were not used to that,” Davis said. “We unfortunately do not participate in a lot of [primary] elections at the rate that we should, and so even fewer of us participated in this 1984 caucus. The presidential candidates for the Democratic Party felt like they had to deal with Arkansas a little bit more, and frankly, were not happy with it. They had to spend more time and resources down here, which was part of the whole point of why we wanted to have a caucus. But at the end of the day with low turnout, confusion, a lot of hurt feelings, disorganization, those candidates then began to resent the process and were very unhappy with us.”

Some Arkansans were unhappy with the system as well. One person wrote a letter to the editor in the Arkansas Gazette to say that the new caucus system effectively disenfranchised 400,000 Arkansans. He points out that Arkansans such as nurses, firemen, postal workers, and doctors must work on Saturdays and therefore were ineligible to participate. Another letter writer from Arkadelphia also notes the low turnout. He said “the turnout from my precinct could have met in a closet.”

Rutherford said the low turnout was a major concern, but it was also a logistical nightmare to coordinate a statewide caucus in more than 700 precincts.

“Caucuses aren’t easy,” said Rutherford. “They’re hard and require a lot of people power. It’s not like you have election officials where you just go in and get your ballot and you run it in a machine and you get out of there. This was very labor intensive.”

In 1988, the next presidential cycle, Arkansas returned to a primary style election. At this time, primary elections were still being run by the parties. And at this time, Arkansas was a one-party state, run almost exclusively by Democrats. Davis says this meant that many meaningful elections happened in the primary, not in November.

“That in its own way limits the ability of people's voices to be heard, because it's a single party state,” said Davis. “So they could vote the general election but in some ways, they're disenfranchised.”

Because the political parties ran the primary elections, they also controlled the polling places.

“There were instances where a county might have one place to vote in a GOP primary.” said Davis. “This was not that long ago. We're talking late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And at that time, then Republican Party Chairman Asa Hutchinson sued the state of Arkansas, and the case was Republican Party of Arkansas v. Faulkner County. He argued on 1st and 14th amendment grounds that this violated people's freedom of association.”

The courts ruled in Hutchinson’s favor, saying it is unfair for the political parties to have unequal abilities to vote. The General Assembly came together and passed legislation to fix it.

“I just love these little tidbits of Arkansas political history,” said Davis. “If you ask Asa Hutchinson today who was the most supportive person for this reform from party funded primaries to state run primaries, it was Mike Beebe. They become rivals and they ran for governor against one another, but it's one of those fun moments about partisanship that I like to share.”

House Bill 1883 of the 1995 legislative session was called "AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR STATE SUPPORTED POLITICAL PARTY PRIMARY ELECTIONS." It was signed into law by Democrat governor Jim Guy Tucker. You can vote in this year’s state-run primaries on March 5th.

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Matthew Moore is a reporter and producer for Ozarks at Large.
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