I did something new today. Something I’d never done before and never thought I’d do. I attended a political caucus. I went into it annoyed at the whole process and came away with a renewed sense of democracy in action.
Washington State has a long history of open primaries. Until recently, our primary elections were completely open. You could vote for any candidate in any race without any declaration of party affiliation (either at registration or voting time). Unfortunately, a virtually identical “Blanket Primary” adopted in California in 1996 was struck down by the Supreme Court. (Those Californians ruin everything!) Since 2001, we’ve had to choose per election which side of the ballot to vote. There’s still no need to declare a party affiliation, but you’re stuck with only one side of the ballot. Anyway, when our primary mail-in ballots arrived a couple weeks ago, I filled it in and had it all ready to mail when I found out that only the Republican side of the ballot would matter. Washington State Democrats would use only the caucus vote. Grumble, grumble. So why was there a Democratic side to the ballot at all? It turns out that was thanks to some political wrangling by the Republicans. Thanks a lot.
I kind of assumed I wouldn’t be able to go to the caucus. I imagined some day-long event full of arcane policy minutia. When I realized that Henry had a chess tournament on caucus day, I thought that sealed the deal. No voice for me in this primary. Then I read a great article in The Stranger, one of Seattle’s weekly papers. All I really had to do is show up and declare my support for a candidate when I signed in. I could turn around and walk out and my voice would be heard. Cool. Other than having to do it at a specific time, it’d be just like voting. So Kathy went to the chess tournament with Henry and shortly before caucus time, I dropped Charlie off there and headed to my date with democracy. (As it turns out kids were quite welcome and I’d have had no problem with Charlie in tow if I’d wanted to do the vote-and-go route.)
About ten precincts in our district caucused at the same place, an elementary school a few blocks from here where Kathy and I had voted regularly before switching to absentee ballots a few years back. I arrived to find a line out the door. There was a guy out front with precinct maps for those who didn’t know their precinct. At the door, a couple Obama supporters were handing out cookies (yum). I found the table for my precinct and signed in, declaring my support for Obama. Each sign-in sheet had space for five people and I was the last on my sheet. All four before me also supported Obama. Interesting.
After signing in, we all gathered in the school’s lunchroom. The room filled up pretty quickly and people just kept coming. It was absolutely packed. The halls were packed with people that couldn’t get in, too. I haven’t seen any turnout numbers for the 46th district, but just next door in the 36th, turnout was more than double that of 2004. After a brief delay while they tried to get the PA system working, we were all welcomed and given an overview of the process. A few minutes later, we all split up into our precinct meetings. Mine (2263) was in the school library. Each precinct covers only a few blocks, so I saw quite a few familiar faces. Our neighbors across the street were there, as was the family from a couple doors down (including their 17-year-old son who could participate because he would be turning 18 before November). The woman down the street with whom I’d discussed genealogy at the block party, too. These weren’t party wonks, they were my neighbors.
The first order of business was to formally elect our precinct captain and assign a secretary and tally keeper, then we waited while the initial tally was made. Our precinct had 5 delegates and based on the first count 4 would go to Obama and 1 to Clinton. There were four people undecided and one Edwards supporter. The floor was then opened to brief comments in support of candidates. The themes were pretty much the same we’ve been hearing for the whole campaign: support for the war, experience vs. charisma, etc. Everyone was so reasonable and respectful, though. And I gotta say that we 2263-ers, as a rule, have a very well-developed sense of humor. One guy’s comments were particularly striking. He said he could list off specific reasons he supports Obama, but when it came right down to it, it’s because Obama is the first candidate he’s been excited about since Robert Kennedy. He said he’d spent the last 40 years voting against people and he was thrilled to have someone he really wanted to vote for. It turns out he’d served with John Kerry in Vietnam and even marched with him in 1971, but never got excited about a Kerry presidency. (Honestly, who did? Does Massachusetts have some deleterious effect on charisma or did they use up their allotment on the Kennedys?) I expected this to be the worst part of the whole process, but I really enjoyed it. After it was all said and done, two undecideds went for Obama, one went for Clinton, and one Clinton supporter switched to Obama. All of which had absolutely no effect on the delegate counts: 4 for Obama, 1 for Clinton.
Finally, we got to choose delegates. There were only four volunteers in the Obama group, so it was pretty straightforward. They cool thing, though, is that one Clinton delegate. The Clinton camp chose our 17-year-old neighbor as their delegate.
So, in the end I actually enjoyed caucusing. It only took about an hour and a half and it was time well spent. I felt a real sense of community; of democracy in action. Nonetheless, I’m not sure the experience changes my overall opinion on caucusing. Even if you just vote and leave, you still have to be available at a specific time on a specific day. Gotta work? Too bad. Out of town? Too bad. Sick? Too bad. Voting by ballot and particularly mail-in ballot makes the process available to so many more people. Now that I’ve experienced a caucus, though, I can’t discount the idea out-of-hand.