Why caucus? Well, if you have to ask that, you might have come to the wrong place, but generally, the answer is that it’s a way to be much more influential in the election process. In the general elections, a person’s vote is one out of hundreds of millions, but in a caucus, it’s relative strength is much stronger and therefore, a better use of one’s time.
If you are outside Washington State, keep in mind that the process is somewhat different in different states, so the info below may not be accurate for your region. Same goes if you’re a republican, as the Republican Party has a different process.
The Democratic Party splits the country into several levels, starting with the top (national), through the State, congressional district, county, legislative district and finally, precincts. At the precinct level, anyone can attend, and if they are of legal voting age (or will be at the actual elections), they can vote as well. It is recommended to pre-register on the Washington democratic website (www.wa-democrats.org), but not required – you can also do this at the event itself, but you should at least use the site to figure out where your precinct’s caucuses are held (typically somewhere in your neighborhood, like a school or other public venue).
Caucuses are typically held on Saturday, usually starting at 10am. Depending on how busy and active your town is, crowding might be a challenge, so I recommend arriving 30-60 minutes ahead, especially if you’re arriving by car and need parking.
Once you arrive, you will have the chance to register and sign-up if you haven’t done so online yet. This includes either signing up to be a voter generally, or signing up to the caucus itself (or both, of course), so if you’re legally allowed to vote but haven’t registered yet, this is a good place to do it.
The caucus, also referred to as a “convention”, things will typically start with a 30 minute introduction, where a local volunteer will read out the precinct names and provide some other high-level info, and then ask the people present to move-off to their precinct tables. This varies by location, but precincts are typically around 50 people each, so the location would typically have many tables setup, sometimes all in one big room, and sometimes in several rooms. Rarely any place has actual tables that can seat 50 people, so some people will have to stand up (if you can’t due to personal limitations, I’m fairly sure someone at the table will give you his or her seat…we are all friends at the caucus!).
Each precinct must have a chair-person, which requires some training, so it typically will be someone from the organization assigned to your precinct. The chair-person can be anyone, really, so don’t expect anyone too formal – it could easily be your neighbor’s 17 year old son or his grandmother. There’s no dress code to the entire thing either, so most people just show up in their daily jeans and t-shirt, including the chair-person.
The chair-person will have an envelope with forms and a “script” to go through the process, and will start by collecting the registration forms. These are supposed to have your full details, as well as the name of the candidate you support, and whether you are willing to be a higher-level delegate for your precinct. In the 2016 caucus, the online forms many people used actually told us NOT to fill this section, which was a mistake that led to some contention. If this happens again later, make sure you DO fill out those details.
What does being a higher-level delegate entail? This is typically a second caucus, a few weeks later, with selected few delegates from each precinct representing and voting for their candidate at the legislative-district convention. What starts out as millions of voters at the precinct level slowly thins out to be less and less people at the higher levels, until reaching the national level, which is about 5000 delegates total. If you continue to step-up and get elected, you might end up going to the nationals (typically somewhere on the east coast) and that’s pretty much the epitome of being involved in the process.
The chair-person will collect the forms, and ask for someone to volunteer to be a secretary and take notes of the caucus, as well as a tally-person who will help count forms and numbers for everything. Once the forms are collected, the tally-person will count how many votes each candidate has, as well as how many people volunteered to be delegates to the next level. Often times, there are at least a few people who are yet undecided (“uncommitted”), and the chairperson would then offer the people at the table an option to say something generally or specifically to the undecided. This is the real meaning and purpose of the caucus, and while time is usually limited, there should be at least 20-30 minutes available to discuss and deliberate.
Different precincts have different numbers of delegates, and for each delegate, there must be an alternate (in case the delegate can’t make it for any reason). Depending on the vote count, the number of delegates for each candidate varies. For example, if your precinct has 50 voters, and assigned 6 delegates, then if one candidate has 33 votes and the other has 17, the 1st candidate will have 4 delegates and the other 2. The Chair person’s packet includes information on how to calculate the number of candidates, of course.
If the number of delegate volunteers isn’t sufficient to cover the required number of delegates and alternates, the chairperson will ask the table for more volunteers, though it’s often the other way around – there are more volunteers than needed delegates. In such a case, the chairperson would ask the table participants to vote on the candidates. If you feel your precinct might be in such a situation, and you really want to be a delegate, the common practice is to talk to your own neighbors (who are in your precinct) ahead of time to find those who support you and/or your position, and might show up to vote for you to be delegate.
Once all the delegates and alternates have been selected, the chairperson would hand out certificates to each, noting their precinct, name and role (primary or alternate), and the caucus should be concluded. Later on, as the democratic org website is updated, more information would be provided about the next level, and it’s up to each delegate to find out where and when that is, and show up to continue the process.
At my caucus this week, I was selected as delegate, and I will blog about that experience afterward as well, on April 17th or a little later.