Friday, March 11, 2016

My first caucus

On Super Tuesday, 1.5 weeks ago, I attended my first-ever caucus. We moved to Colorado in 2009, one year after the last Democratic presidential primary. Colorado does closed caucuses (only registered members of the party can participate) and in non-presidential election years, I've always received a paper ballot in the mail for the primary, so this was my first-ever opportunity to participate.

A side note about caucuses and voting in general: I actually don't love the caucus concept as a political process, because I find the barrier to entry to be prohibitively high. It takes a lot longer than voting, first of all, and while you CAN bring kids with you, it did not appear to be a very pleasant experience to do so, which means that single parents or couples who both want to vote would need to either wrangle their kids in a hot, crowded, boring, slow-moving caucus for a couple hours or pay for childcare or... you know, not attend. Also, because everyone has to show up at once, the parking situation is completely insane. And, the whole speeches for candidates, everyone band together on various sides of the room and try to convince the uncommitted people to come to their side thing is just... I don't know, it seems like there's a lot of room for blurring lines, is all. The argument I keep hearing in favor of caucuses is that it means only the people who truly care and are involved in the political process make the decisions, which sounds nice until you think about it more and it starts to sound more like an argument to keep affluent white people in charge.

On the plus side, when we AREN'T having caucuses, Colorado does vote by mail, which is AMAZING... the ballot shows up a few weeks before the election, you fill it out, you put a stamp on it, you send it back, you're done. No waiting in line, no having to get time off work to go vote, no having to find a polling place. It's GREAT.

Anyway, back to my caucus experience. I personally did not suffer from the childcare issues I mentioned above, because Torsten is not a U.S. citizen and can't vote, so he stayed home with the kids while I attended the caucus. The caucus was held at a high school near enough to our house that I could walk there, thank goodness, because as aforementioned, holy traffic and parking issues, my goodness. The walk over felt sort of pleasantly neighborly--I encountered a neighbor waiting for another neighbor to walk over, and they invited me to join them, which I did, and then we gave directions to someone else who was trying to find the school, and everyone was sort of cheerful and chatty and it was lovely. (Also, there was only a Democratic caucus that day, so it wasn't like there were Sanders and Trump fans glaring at each other or anything.)

The caucus started at 7 and the precinct captain who canvassed our neighborhood told us to plan to arrive between 6:30 and 6:45. We walked in at about 6:40 and the place was PACKED. It was absolute chaos, standing room only, and totally nuts. The high school was the polling place for about 10 different precincts, and each precinct had its own sign-in table in the main hallway with a sign on the wall with the precinct number, but the hall was SO full and crowded that it was impossible to see the signs. There was also a huge line of people who didn't know their precinct number and were waiting to look it up, but thankfully our precinct captain had handed out little cards with our precinct number on them, so we were spared that hell. It took probably about 15 minutes of elbows-out neck-craning to figure out where our precinct check-in was, and then there was actually no line for it so we were able to sign in and head into the cafeteria very quickly. The worst part, though, was this woman in a wheelchair who needed to use the restroom, and it turned out that the restrooms were on the very far end of the hallway on the other side of the massive crowd, and there was just no possible way that she was going to be able to shove through all the people, so she had to just not use the restroom.

The crowd in the hallway to check in

Anyway, we got in the cafeteria, which was equally full of people and also very, very hot, and managed to find a place near a door that someone had propped open, so that helped. I was assuming that the voting itself would take place in the cafeteria, but that turned out not to be the case. A little bit after 7 they got started, even though tons of people were still checking in out in the hallway. Whoever was in charge, and I still don't know who that was, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and then two people split the duties of reading all the caucus rules out loud. Even though they had a microphone, the room was so loud and crowded that the people at the back couldn't hear at all, and kept yelling in annoyance for them to speak up. However, it turns out that you don't really need to hear what's being said at this time? It seemed very procedural. They were legit reading all the articles of the caucus law, including the actual article numbers like 4.a.1 or whatever, down to the full mailing address of where to send any protests to, and I get that they need to do that, but I personally didn't feel the need to actually be able to decipher what they were saying. Next time, I think, I will come by 7, check in, and then hang out in the hallway until the first part is done and it's time to break down by precinct.

A corner of the crowd in the cafeteria

Anyway, so, they read all the rules and then people had an opportunity to make speeches in favor of candidates, which a bunch of people did--not for presidential candidates but for the local stuff that was also happening that night (state senator, district attorney, and university regent). It was interesting to hear the speeches but I had no real idea who to vote for in those races, and the speeches didn't help with that because of course they just all made everyone sound great, but they were only a minute long apiece and didn't get very into the weeds.

After about half an hour, they read out the classroom numbers that each precinct was assigned to, and we all went off to find our rooms. My precinct was in a science lab and we all sat in those little chairs with desks attached to them. There were about 60 people there and our precinct captain for Hillary was there, but there was no precinct captain for Bernie, which evidently there was supposed to be, because the Hillary precinct captain only had the paperwork for Hillary, so while a Bernie supporter volunteered to be the precinct captain, it took some time to hunt down someone at the caucus who had the appropriate paperwork.

So, the precinct captain had us split up in a straw poll, Hillary supporters on the left side of the room, Bernie supporters on the right, and uncommitted at the back. It was about a 2:1 split Hillary:Bernie, with two people going to the back to say they were uncommitted, which opened the opportunity for people to make little speeches in favor of their candidates to try to sway the uncommitted people. A few people did that for each side, actually pretty interesting and quite civil, and then the uncommitted people asked how Bernie was going to fund his proposed policies, nobody could give a satisfactory answer, and they both went over to the Hillary side. (I actually suspect that they were Hillary supporters the whole time and were trying to make a point). Then we did a final vote, and the captains for each candidate counted, and a second person counted behind them to confirm, and then they filled out all the paperwork and our precinct awarded two county delegates for Hillary and one for Bernie. Then we selected who actually wanted to BE those delegates, including alternate delegates, and attend the county convention (which is evidently scheduled for the Saturday night right before Easter? Which is also spring break for Denver public schools? Which seems like a puzzling choice, but whatever). Only a few people volunteered, so everyone who volunteered was selected. The whole presidential piece took about half an hour, maybe a little longer, and our precinct captain commented that it had been very efficient and we had made record time.

At this point things started to go off the rails. The presidential vote was done and the paperwork filed, and that all went smoothly, but we were still supposed to deal with the state and local questions, but there wasn't really anyone running the show. The Hillary precinct captain who had been managing things thus far had only been trained on the presidential piece, and the Bernie precinct captain had only just become precinct captain half an hour prior and wasn't trained at all. The Hillary precinct captain sort of took over and did her best, but it was very confusing, and I never fully figured out the rights of it. Basically, there were candidates for each of the three positions that people had made speeches about in the cafeteria earlier, but apparently we were supposed to just pick one set of local delegates who would vote for all three positions? But also, most people weren't very familiar with the candidates for each position and didn't have strong opinions, and somehow it seemed that we were supposed to vote for district attorney candidates as a proxy for selecting delegates, and the state senator and university regent positions did not get voted on, even though the delegates would be voting for those people too? Which was puzzling, especially because of the three positions, the only one I had any opinion on at all was state senator, but we did not take a vote on state senator. And it wasn't like people were running as a bloc, where if you picked a certain DA candidate you were also voting for a particular senator and regent candidate, so basically it was just all really confusing. Finally, a couple people who were aware of the races gave speeches in favor of various DA candidates, which were a little more useful than the ones in the cafeteria because they talked about some of the actual issues and stances like who had taken a stance against the death penalty and promised not to pursue it, etc., and we all voted, and then somehow we picked some delegates and I guess those people are just going to go to the county convention and vote for whoever they want for state senator and university regent? I'm still confused about this.

After that, which took about another half an hour, the precinct captain said she was pretty sure that we were done and could go (though really, you can leave a caucus at any time, you're not required to stay or anything, but you only get to vote for things you're actually present for, so you can't, like, show up, sign in, tell someone your preferred presidential candidate, and leave again before the vote if you want your vote actually counted), but she went off to check with the people running the caucus to be sure, and while she was gone one of the people who was originally uncommitted raised his hand to propose a resolution eliminating superdelegates, and then someone else was like, this isn't the place for that, and then they started having a (civil) argument about whether it was or not, and apparently it is? In that you can raise a resolution for anything at all at a caucus and try to get it passed, and the idea is that that's how regular people get involved in the political process? Which is all good and well, but frankly I'm guessing that a random dude wearing a cowboy hat at a high school in Denver isn't going to be the impetus for eliminating superdelegates, and it was hot and I was feeling maxed out, so I left, along with the two neighbors I had walked in with, and we all walked home together. I got home at about 8:45, so altogether, including walking time, I was gone for a little over two hours.

Altogether, I would say the experience was equal parts fascinating and tedious, but I know that Colorado has tossed around the idea of replacing our caucuses with regular primaries (and I believe, though I'm not sure, that the reason they didn't do that this year was something to do with scheduling--the caucus could be earlier in the year than a primary would be allowed to be--and they wanted to maintain their national relevance, so they kept it). But I have to say, I do really hope that they move to a regular primary system in the future, because it is both easier and more accessible for all voters. Still, I'm glad I had a chance to attend a caucus at least once, if only for the experience.


  1. Ahh yes I went through this process in 2008 while in law school. Super chaotic, but also very interesting. I'm happy that IL goes the primary route though.

  2. Thanks so much for writing about this -- I've always wondered about the caucus process and your post answered so many questions! :)

  3. I read this ages ago when you first posted but failed to comment: OH MAN THIS IS SO INCREDIBLY INTERESTING!!! I had *no* idea how caucuses worked, and I've always wondered. It's so... weird! And... like, a super-democratic process at its core, yet exclusive in reality, as you point out. Man. Seems like such a throwback to when towns were much smaller and more community-based.

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