This past Saturday the Washington State Democratic Caucuses took place. It was the second time that I participated in a caucus, the first time being in 2008 (I wasn’t living here yet in 2004).
If you’ve only lived in states that have primaries then nothing has ever really prepared you for the experience of attending a caucus. Primary and general election voting might mean waiting in a long line (my experience in 2000 and 2004), but once you’re up to the booth you cast your ballot and you leave. Even before switching to all mail-in ballots, general elections were like this in Washington. Caucuses, though, are a whole different beast.
To start off, you’re not committing to standing mutely in line, shuffling toward the polls, your committing to sitting or standing with a group of your neighbors and engaging them in conversation. Even if—like me—you bring a book to occupy the time while you are waiting for the process to begin, once it starts you are listening and you are speaking. Let me back up, though, because that isn’t how things begin.
My caucus location, this time around, was a senior high school about ten minutes drive south of my home. I had pre-printed my registration form, so with that in hand I was directed from the gymnasium to the commons (cafeteria) where my precinct and many others were meeting. The place was huge and it was packed, but luckily the table I needed to find was near to the door I had entered by. I found a seat, turned in my registration form to the precinct captain, and got out my book.
Around me were a group of about twenty people, ranging in age from babe-in-arms up to septuagenarians, and of multiple ethnicities. Some were talking to the person they came with, others were knitting, while still others got to know the people sitting next to or across from them. I was the only one reading, but that’s not unusual.
Right at 10:00 (I got there at about 9:30) a local state representative or senator kicked things off, and then handed things over to her husband, the mayor. He welcomed everyone, introduced some local dignitaries, and explained how things were going to work. This one ran differently than the one eight years previous, which I suspect reflects how rules change and grow.
At precisely 10:30 each precinct captain authorized the tally of votes to begin. The tally is conducted by going through everyone’s registration sheets and noting who they had written in as their preferred candidate: Clinton, Sanders, or uncommitted. This took about ten minutes, at which point the captain announced that our precinct had split three delegates for Sanders and one for Clinton.
I guess at this point I should mention that the whole point of this exercise is not to choose a candidate, so much as it is to choose delegates who will vote for that candidate. This is the same as in a primary, but far more direct and personal. Most people in a primary don’t realize that they’re voting for delegates rather than the candidate. On a caucus, though, we do, and we even know who our delegates are (more on this later).
With the initial tally in, the fun part of the caucus begins. Anyone in attendance, precinct by precinct, can choose to speak on behalf of their candidate. We started off going around the group, seeing who had something to say. As you might expect people were a little slow to get warmed up, but they got there soon enough.
The first four or five people who chose to speak were all Sanders supporters. They talked about why they like Sanders, what his candidacy means to them, and why they have chosen to support his candidacy. Then we got to a couple of Clinton supporters. I’m not making any value judgements, nor am I casting aspersions on Clinton herself, but her supporters seemed more interested in telling us whey they aren’t supporting Sanders than why they are supporting Clinton. A minute into the first person’s speech the captain had to step in and remind her to talk about her candidate, not the other one. The captain had to unfortunately make this same request three more times with that woman, and a couple of times with each of the next two Clinton supporters. When denied the chance to talk about their non-support of Sanders they seemed to lose their train of thought.
I intentionally waited until a lot of other folks had spoken before I raised my hand. I had been making notes on points raised and on ideas I wanted to introduce. I also find it’s very effective to be able to make eye contact with people as you address their specific points, whether in support or refutation of.
I spoke about how I would trace my political awareness back to the presidential election of ’92, and how I have voted in every election since ’96. I talked about how—for that entire time—I had heard the constantly repeated message that America is a centrist nation and that decisions are made in the middle. Knowing this the Republican Party has consistently moved to the right, while the Democratic Party has just as consistently … moved to the right. This constant shift has meant that the center is repeatedly being redefined as further and further to the right. One of the Clinton supporters had tried to tell us how Sanders’ far-left ideas would lead to nothing but deadlock with Congress, so I made the point that we’ve had eight years of a very centrist Democrat in the White House and nothing but gridlock from the Republican Congress. A Clinton supporter had touted her foreign policy experience, to which I replied that both parties’ leaders cleaved more closely to NeoCon ideals of foreign military interventionism, and that Sanders represents the only chance we have to break out of that cycle. I made the point that there is no job in America like that of President, and that, in selecting a candidate, all we can go on are their character, their ideas, and what they say they will do. On all of those points I believe in and trust Sanders to always try to do the right thing. Finally, I talked about voting for my ideals, not for a cynical calculation of electability. I talked about the importance of standing for principles I believe in, because that is the only way that we will ever make a difference.
Throughout my whole speech I was very careful to never mention Clinton, even in passing, so as to stay on the right side of the precinct captain’s rules. Nonetheless I think I did a pretty good job of getting my point across.
A few more people spoke after me and then, when no one else seemed inclined to do so, the precinct captain asked if anyone wanted to change their vote. No one did, which wasn’t too surprising. I think that in speaking from our hearts about our support for our candidates we were talking in language more appropriate to our own side than to saying the other. The captain affirmed that the previous delegate break down stood and asked us to break up into camps to choose delegates.
As I said above, in a primary you often don’t know that you’re voting for delegates, and you almost certainly don’t know who they are. In a caucus though, you choose your delegates from the people right there who caucused with you. In the Sanders group we had to choose three delegates and three alternates. I threw my hat in and was chosen as one of the alternates. This isn’t as impressive as it sounds since only enough of us volunteered in the first place, but it’s still a little cool. What this means is that, if one of our three delegates can’t make it to the legislative district caucus in three weeks I may be asked to attend in their place. If that happens I have a chance of being selected to go on to the congressional district caucus, and from there could have a very small chance of being chosen to go to Philadelphia in July. A very very small chance. Kinda cool 🙂
As things were breaking up I was approached by one of the Clinton supporters who thanked me for what I had said. During our conversation she talked about idealism and about how—despite loving Sanders—she was supporting Clinton because of her experience as a young woman supporting George McGovern. I aligned with her feelings, but made the point that 2016 is not 1972, Bernie Sanders is not George McGovern, and Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon.
So to wrap up this fairly long post, that was my experience on Saturday at my Democratic Party Caucus.