February 07, 2004


Today was the first time that Becky and I have participated in the caucus system in Washington state (or anywhere else, for that matter). This is a long rambling discussion of how it went. Won't be offended if you skip all this text ;-)

This year, turnout was expected to be much higher than usual. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that this year the caucuses are the only way that Washington voters are being allowed input to the Democratic nominations. As I understand it there's usually a split between primary and caucus here where some delegates are selected via a popular vote and some are by caucus. This year the election was cancelled. The reason I've heard for this is that it would cost the state too much money to run a general election. I wonder if there wasn't some worry on the part of the party that the Republican faction in the state would take advantage of the open primary to vote for a spoiler candidate. In any event, the caucus was the only game for any Democrats who wanted to have a voice in the nomination.

Oh, the other reason they expected big turnout for this year's caucus? Bush.

Normally, I guess the caucuses for each precinct happen in locations within the precinct, in someone's basement or living room. This year in response to the threat of major attendance, they instead combined a bunch of precincts in our area into the common room at Issaquah High School.

We got to the school at about 9:45 and got our first taste of how disorganized the event was going to be. We walked in the door and found a clump of people trying to figure out what to do. There were some Dean supporters handing out literature and stickers, and over to the right there was a table with the word "membership" on it (that turned out to be for joining the 5th District Democrats), then down a few steps on the main floor was a big crowd of people. Finally we figured out that we were supposed to sign in at some tables at the edge of the big milling crowd on sheets by precinct. When we signed in we had to specify our preference for nominee (with uncommitted a valid option). There were three people signed in for our precinct ahead of us, two Clarks and an uncommitted. Beck and I both signed in for Dean.

We walked around and talked to some of the people we know, then went to the table set aside for our precinct. Before the caucus I had tried to determine the bounds of our precinct. I had the number from my voter registration card (ISS 05-0546), but I couldn't find a map anywhere to show who's in with us. At the end of today's meeting I found a map on the wall that showed the precinct boundaries. It's south of I-90, north of Sunset Way, and east of 2nd Avenue (yes, it's basically triangular). We introduced ourselves to the folks at the table and found out that one of them lives in the condos right across the street from us! When everyone had arrived and the caucus got underway there were eleven (11) people from our precinct at the table.

Kathleen Drew, our former state senator called the assembly to order with a megaphone the full extent of the PA system. She read the rules for who could participate and what the order of business would be. I was glad that we read some things about how the caucus is supposed to operate before we came because it was hard to hear and there were no visual aids at all. No one at our table had been to the caucus before.

When we were set loose to tally our first vote at 10:30, it stood at 5 for dean, 3 for clark, and 3 uncommitted. We had three delegates to allocate from our precinct, so there was one vote up for grabs with the undecideds. We set in to discussing the merits of the candidates and the tactics we could follow. The Dean and Clark contingents were both committed to holding their position. The undecideds had the option of pushing either of those to two out of three delegates, or pooling their three votes for another candidate altogether. The most vocal Clark supporter was actually an employee of his state campaign organization and was pretty persuasive in pushing the viewpoint that keeping Clark in the race would make him a more viable option for the VP slot down the road when Kerry or Dean (or whoever) finally secures the nomination. I think just about everyone at the table voiced a soft spot for Dean as their early favorite, but the undecided and Clark supporters were worried about his viability as a nation-wide candidate against the Bush/Rove machine.

The undecideds finally put their heads together and decided to form a block pushing the final tally to Clark 6, Dean 5 so we ended up sending two Clark delegates and one Dean. I'm the Dean delegate and Becky is the alternate ;-) We had some trouble picking who would be the delegates because no one knew when the district caucus was to be held. Someone went and asked and found out it will be May 1st.

By this point, the organizers of the event (if you can call them that) had completely lost control. Kathleen Drew was still making announcements on the bullhorn, but we couldn't hear what she was saying. Each precinct was busy talking among themselves. Once the nominating votes were tallied, the next order of business was to be proposals for statements to be included in the Democratic party platform. At our table we didn't know how this was supposed to work so we considered it among ourselves. There were two proposals included in the packets at the tables, so we voted on those (actually only one of them because we didn't really comprehend the other), then we talked about other possibilities. I had printed off a page-long proposal that had been written up by a group of IRV (instant run-off voting) supporters. We talked about it a bit and all but a couple of people were in support of the concept (though we didn't look at the details of the language).

With the voting completed, people started to head for the door. When most of them had left, there was finally an intelligible announcement indicating that the platform portion of the meeting would take place as a joint session facilitated by Brian Derdowski (former King County Councilman (back when he was a Republican)).

At its peak, there were over 350 people in the room. There were less than 50 left when the platform resolution portion started. Here again, the only method of communication was the bullhorn. Not even an overhead projector. Brian did a reasonably good job of using Robert's Rules to keep things moving along and making sure that everyone was heard. The sheet of paper I brought with the pre-packaged resolution in support of IRV was turned in with our voting results so I wasn't able to present it to this group. And I probably wouldn't have even if I had still had it because a whole page of text doesn't play very well when the only way you can put it in front of the group is by reading it aloud. They would have run me out of the room on a rail and rightly so. At this level what I needed was a brief punchy statement of support for IRV coupled with a slightly longer list of talking points about the benefits to the Democratic party of adopting it (yes, there really are some!) Next time I'll have a better idea what's needed.

Overall, it was an interesting exercise. It was neat to be able to meet with our neighbors and talk about the neighborhood as it fits into the larger political picture (and to get lots of sympathy about the ugly duplex that sprouted up next door to us last year). It will be good to see what the next level is like at the beginning of May especially since by that point we'll have a good idea who the actual candidate will be... It'll be strange to be still deciding when the conclusion is mostly foregone.

Going into it I thought that we'd be better off with an open primary election where everyone can voice their opinion at the polls. After going through the caucus I'm a little more sympathetic to the concept for the value in neighbor to neighbor connections, and the potential for bringing more people actively into the political process. At our table we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses so that we can get in touch with each other in the future if need be (and to organize a carpool to the district caucus in May!)

Here's the overall delegate count from our caucus location:

Posted by jeffy at February 7, 2004 01:54 PM

I went to mine this morning. I'm also going to the next level. Should be fun.

Posted by: tyd at February 7, 2004 04:25 PM