The planning process ahead of March’s Kentucky Republican U.S. presidential caucus is new to most regional party leaders and many are reserving judgment on it until after the ballots have been cast.
The party voted in August to move its presidential nominating event from a May primary to a March caucus, due to a Kentucky law preventing a candidate’s name from appearing on the ballot twice.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Bowling Green Republican, is running for president and the re-election of his congressional seat at the same time. With the caucus, Paul can participate in it, as well as the May primary.
But neither Kentucky party has caucused since 1984, and leaders in Daviess, Hancock, Ohio, McLean and Muhlenberg counties say they’re uncertain about what the process could mean for voter turnout and results.
A report of Kentucky’s 1988-89 interim Joint Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments noted that the caucus method used in 1984 was “generally met with dissatisfaction among voters, mainly because many did not understand the process and many who did understand the procedure viewed it as a return to the days when nominees were chosen by a select few, behind closed doors.”
All five counties will use single caucus locations.
Local County Caucus Locations
The Home Place
875 Walnut St.
4255 New Hartford Rd.
80 Kentucky 271
1000 N. Main St.
130 E. Washington St.
According to the party’s Official Call to Caucus, distributed to chairpersons statewide, this caucus — and any — differs from a primary election mainly by whom it is conducted. Caucuses are party-driven secret ballot platforms to choose nominees for president, while primary elections are organized by the secretary of state.
Kentucky is a closed-primary state, meaning only individuals registered to vote in a particular party can have a say on who that party nominates for president. That makes the caucus system not look all that different for many voters, except for when it is conducted. The party chose to caucus on a Saturday, March 5, four days after Super Tuesday, when five of the largest Southern states — Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama — conduct their nomination process on the same day.
McLean County Chairman Steve Hatfield said he believes that should make Kentucky’s nomination results more relevant on the national stage.
Kentucky’s primary election is normally in May, often weeks after the presumed presidential nominee has been weeded out by other states.
Kentucky Republicans who have registered to vote in the party by Thursday, Dec. 31, will take the polls from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on March 5 to make their early decision. Hatfield said what could be most surprising to voters that day may be the presence of candidate representatives. GOP rules allow individuals to lobby for candidates listed on the ballot within 25 feet of the polling place.
Most caucus leaders in the region are unsure of whether or not representatives will turn out at their caucus locations, and, in many cases, how the lobbying will be conducted.
Richard Basham is the party caucus chairman in Hancock County. He said he and his committee have decided to stage candidate representatives in the hallway of Hancock County High School that leads into the gymnasium where voting will take place. Party leaders in Ohio, McLean, Daviess and Muhlenberg counties have not yet decided.
Hatfield said he wasn’t even sure representatives would show up in McLean County, considering its size.
“If these candidates have people in the county who want to stand there and pass out pamphlets and say, ‘Hey, vote for my guy,’ they’re allowed to do that,” he said. “But I have no idea if they will.”
Caucuses are conducted differently in each state, and Kentucky is modeling its decision-making process off states like Kansas, Hatfield said, where the caucus resembles a modified primary. The idea behind caucusing dates back to pre-American colonies where nominees where agreed upon at party headquarter meetings. States like Iowa conduct their caucuses more like those often rowdy meetings, where candidate representatives make presentations in front of large groups of voters before secret paper ballots are circulated.
Hatfield said Kentucky GOP staff have told county leaders that Kentucky’s caucus should be nothing like Iowa’s.
Daviess County Republican Party Chairman David York said he hopes the caucus will incite conservative voters to make the party switch.
York said he knows many Kentuckians who believe in conservative principles but remain registered Democrats. Not unlike a primary, however, the caucus requires a Republican Party affiliation.
The official call to caucus states that the following methods of identification will be used to verify that voters are qualified to participate: personal acquaintances, motor vehicle operator’s licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards and photo-signature ID cards or papers.
Considering the limited time frame and weekend date set for the primary, Hatfield said absentee voting procedures may become even more relevant this spring.
Voters may participate in the caucus by absentee ballot if they will be absent from their county on the day of the caucus; they are an active duty member of the military stationed outside their county of registration; they are 70 or older, have a medical condition or disability or is admitted to a residence health care facility; or if the voter is a student who does not reside in their registered county.
The application to vote by absentee ballot will be available for download on the Republican Party of Kentucky’s official website (http://rpk.org/caucus/) on Jan. 7 and may be submitted to the party headquarters via postal mail at P.O. Box 1068, Frankfort, KY 40602; via fax at 502-223-5625; or in person at the party headquarters on West Third Street in Frankfort.
An application to vote by absentee ballot must be received by Feb. 19. The party will begin mailing absentee ballots on Jan. 14. Those ballots are due to the headquarters in Frankfort by 5 p.m. EST on March 4.
As of earlier this week, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, John Kasich and Chris Christie had filed to participate in the caucus.