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February 09, 2008  |  Caucus  |  5004 hit(s)

We went to our local Democratic caucus today. It was at the elementary school up the street, so we left the house just a few minutes before the 1:00 PM start time. As we approached, tho, we realized that people were thronging to the school, and we ended up parking quite a ways away. There was a long, long line to get into the school (everyone was quite happy that it wasn't raining) -- we estimated that in all there might been, dunno, 500 people. I found out later that people had come some distance to get to the caucus, so were just lucky that the location was close to our home.

Standing in line gave us a chance to talk to people around us. People were excited. The woman behind us had gone to Key Arena yesterday morning to hear Obama speak to an overflow crowd (18,000+) and conveyed her excitement and that of other people who'd attended. So many young people, she noted.

Several people said it was the first time they'd attended a caucus, which was true for us as well. As I say, people were fired up about the elections this time. The caucus this year is also earlier than in years past, per the same tendency that states have had to move their primaries up. So this time it actually matters; in the past, the Washington vote has not been particularly influential in candidate selection.

Inside it was a zoo. It seemed pretty clear that the local party had been caught flat-footed by the sheer number of voters who turned out. They had initially planned to use the cafeteria/auditorium for all precincts, but had overflowed pretty quickly into the gym. Even then, both rooms were packed full.

In addition to not anticipating the numbers, the party had not been super-organized about how people were supposed to find their precinct's assembly area (or even find out what their precinct actually is). So there was a lot of milling around. But people seemed to take both the crowd and the disorganization in pretty good humor.

We found our precinct and waited. We found a sign-in sheet, on which you record your basic info and your (at least initial) presidential preference. They had of course way underestimated the number of sheets they'd need, so we had to improvise. Then they sorted out some officers -- a secretary, a chief officer of some sort -- all of which was done by voluneering on the spot.

In our particular case, there was confusion because they'd combined two precincts. Or they hadn't. Or something. Someone was dispatched to get some answers while they did an initial count of the votes. The answer came back from the higher-ups that no, the precincts were to be treated separately, so this required a tedious process of sorting out the initial votes by separate precincts.

Finally the votes were tallied on a whiteboard. An Obama supporter read out the numbers on the sign-in sheets, closely watched by a Clinton supporter. We had 75 people in the room (50 + 25 for the two precincts). (One woman, alluding to the type of suburb we live in, said wryly "Who would have thought there were so many Democrats in our neighborhood!" We laughed.) In our 50-person precinct we had 29 Obama and 21 Clinton, in the other precinct it came out as 16 and 9. No one had signed in as undecided, which I found quite surprising.

We were well over an hour into the whole thing by then, and had finally gotten to the caucus-y part of the caucus -- were people could speak about their choice. As we read the rules, one person for each candidate was allowed one minute to make a statement.[1] We had were working as two precincts, so we got four such statements.

One person said she had a son in Iraq and felt that Clinton would best be able to bring the troops home. She used the phrase "White House-ready." Another said that she felt that Clinton was the right candidate for now, and that she'd bring Obama to the point where he would be ready in 8 years. An Obama supporter emphasized the need for change.

Each person got applause. The last speaker said what probably many people were thinking, which was that they would support whoever got the nomination in the end.

A couple of more math-inclined people noted judiciously that such-and-this number of people would have to change their votes in order to affect the delegate count, and did anyone think they might do that? None. So our delegate count stood at 2+2 and 3+1.[2]

The next step was the reading and submission of various statements, which would not be voted on. So Sarah and I left at that point, which was right around 3:00.

It sure was an interesting process. The logistics of it all -- or lack thereof -- could have had a negative effect, but people were remarkably patient. It would have been a different experience to be sitting in a more relaxed atmosophere with maybe a fewer number of people, and especially to be able to hear more from individuals about their preferences. The question of Obama or Clinton has certainly generated a lot of discussion, but we didn't really get that much of it today.

I suppose it's a reflection of the electoral process at large: bureaucratic, somewhat disorganized, not perfectly representative of everyone's choice. A bit messy. I still love it, tho. I love that people take elections seriously, and seeing people streaming into the school today lifted my heart. Elections really are about hope for the future. And that was in plentiful supply today.

[1] This didn't seem right to me -- I understand the time limit, but somehow thought that anyone who wanted to would have the chance to speak. It was academic, because few enough people wanted to make statements.

[2] Or that's the way we reckoned it. The instructions were really not that clear about how to do the rounding and such to split 4 delegates by our 29-21 votes. But we had a roomful of people who (we could stereotype) go out of their way to be fair, so that's how it ended up being assigned.

Kent Sharkey   10 Feb 08 - 8:49 PM

I keep hearing that so many people were caucusing for the first time, implying (to me at least) that there should be record numbers for the turnout. The description of the polling place seems to indicate this.

However, I saw at the CNN site that only about 45,000 (about 30K for the D, 15K or so for the R) turned out. With about 3.7million registered voters. Are your candidates actually selected by about 1% of the population?

mike   10 Feb 08 - 11:41 PM

Each state is different. WA also has a primary, which (as I understand it) for the Republicans represents 51% of the choice (vs 49% for the caucus), and is apparently meaningless for the Democrats. Other states have primaries only, others (I guess -- IA if I remember correctly) caucuses only.

I don't know what the overall percentage is of eligible voters who decide candidates. It looks like it's pretty low, altho for this particular election might be bumped up slightly (these are for previous elections):


The Seattle Times says this about the current election:
The reality is the percentage of voters who weighed in Saturday to pick a president was far lower than is typical even for off-year votes for things like school levies.

An estimated 10 percent of registered voters took part — obliterating the old record for a caucus. Still, that is about a million fewer voters than cast ballots in the 2000 presidential primary (which was a normal election, not a gathering in school gyms and churches).