This Is What Democracy Looks Like, a Report from the Washington State Caucuses

Will Rogers once joked “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” It’s as true today as when he said it, as I was reminded when I attended the caucus held in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a neighborhood so liberal our local City Councilmember is Socialist Kshama Sawant.

The caucuses were scheduled to begin at 10 am, and as someone who hadn’t pre-registered I was encouraged via text message by volunteers for the Sanders campaign to arrive by 9 am to make sure I got my paperwork filled out in time to properly participate in the caucus. I thought that was probably a good idea, but I got a wee bit tipsy the night before, and didn’t make it til 9:30.

The caucus was held at the Century Ballroom at the corner of 10th and Pine, a giant space usually reserved for Salsa, Swing, and other couples-style dancing. It occupies most of the second floor of the old Oddfellows building, a large, old structure smack dab in the heart of one of the most liberal neighborhoods in one of the most liberal cities in the US.

When I arrived, the line to get inside was already around the corner and down the block almost to Pike Street. I was immediately grateful to have brought a thermos of coffee and a book.

The back of the line, as seen from near the front.

The line moved quickly enough, and I split time between reading, chatting with my neighbors in the queue, and waiting for the ibuprofen to kick in. By 10, I’d made it to the door, where I noticed the rear of the line, which had wrapped around the entire block. Upstairs the ballroom was already to capacity, and there was an announcement about moving to an overflow room once the yoga class happening there was finished. Given there were something like a thousand people waiting to get in, it didn’t seem likely to be enough. But we Seattleites are a patient and orderly folk, and it was a good scene to be in, despite the organizers’ stunning lack of foresight with regard to the number of people likely to show up and make their voices heard in this bizarro-world election year we’re having.

Eventually the overwhelmed but plucky organizers made the decision to move a half a dozen precincts across the street to Cal Anderson park, where there’s a big soccer field and a couple of tennis courts. I followed an older woman who said my precinct, number 2928, had been moved across the street, and who walked with sufficient purpose that I assumed she knew what she was doing.

Not sure who he ended up caucusing for.

It was a nice day to be outside. At the far corner of the field there were some people either playing or practicing softball, and a homeless man was asleep on the padded turf near the entrance we used. Folks milled about, calling out precinct numbers and holding up signs scrawled on the backs of random pieces of paper. There was one precinct captain, a big fellow in a collared blue shirt with a shorn head and beard to match, but he was mostly there as an information resource and not actively organizing anybody. I made a sign and kept hollering out our precinct number, figuring eventually the precinct captain I’d heard we’d been assigned would show up and take charge sooner or later, once they’d gone around the building and told the folks in line where their precinct caucuses had been moved to.

Whoever she or he was, we never saw them.

So, the last time I caucused, in 2008, our assigned precinct captain was a very elderly woman with a tiny little voice who wasn’t really able to run the caucus, and I, a veteran and accomplished loudmouth, ended up volunteering to read the script and lead the meeting. Eight years later, I am less of a loudmouth on my own initiative, but I can still herd a passel of cats when I need to. I’d already been holding the sign and gathering folks, and had managed, once softball practice was over and the danger of being hit by a line drive thus reduced, to get our hundred-plus caucusers to convene in a space big enough to hold us and keep us distinct from the other precincts. So when it turned out we needed a volunteer to play precinct captain, I was ready, willing, and able.

I deputized my next door neighbor as my second/secretary, and we got a roughly two-minute briefing on the process by the harried organizer who handed us the paperwork and info packet.

Caucuses are more complicated and time-consuming than just casting a primary vote, especially in Washington state, where voting is done by mail. But they’re not really that complicated. We got everyone to hand in their sign-in sheets, and while T, my second, tallied them up for the first vote count, I got everyone to split into three distinct groups: Sanders supporters, Clinton supporters, and Undecided. We had over a hundred people, the vast majority in the Sanders group, and I had to get them to sound off in order to get an accurate count. After our preliminary delegate calculation, 5 of our 8 went to Sanders, 2 to Clinton, and the last was Undecided.

Then it was time for people to speak.

T and I, both Sanders supporters, briefly conferred, and agreed that we’d keep folks to around two minutes, and that we’d put the kibosh on any negative campaigning and encourage folks to make only the positive case for their candidate. Since they were outnumbered, and because I’m old-fashioned enough to still believe in ladies-first, I let the Clinton camp speak first. The first speaker was a UW grad student who was strongly concerned about Bernie Sanders’ approach to pharmaceutical patents and the effect his preferred policy would have on university research programs, which I don’t think anyone expected. He went over time, and I had to put the kibosh on some shouted questions from the Sanders contingent, afraid that if I let that precedent be set that things would or at least could get out of hand pretty quickly. There were a few grumbles, but like I said, Seattleites are civil folks, and I made sure everyone understood that everyone who wanted to speak would have their chance.

The speeches went on for I’m guessing between forty-five minutes and an hour. Some were contentious, some folks got applause from everyone. One guy, a shut-in looking fellow in a ratty brown t-shirt, seemed absolutely mystified that no one else was interested in caucusing for Jerry Brown. I had to remind him more than once that he’d already gotten his turn to speak when he kept interrupting other people, but for the most part everyone got a respectful hearing, and almost everyone bought in to the no negative campaigning rule (and, probably unsurprisingly, the folks that needed reminding about that were, for the most part, Sanders supporters). This being Capitol Hill, Sanders got a lot of props for his early and consistent support for gay rights, and his critique of income inequality and its institutional underpinnings got a lot of play. Clinton’s supporters highlighted her experience and ability to get things done. Overall, the biggest applause lines were about party unity and how glad we all were not to be Republicans, especially this time around, with the two front-runners exchanging snipes about dick size and whose wife’s hotter and which one of them should be allowed to go down the big slide first.

The undecideds all broke for Sanders.

By now we were a well-oiled caucusing machine, and folks lined up and sounded off numbers for the final count without my having to corral them. There were one or two hiccups, but nothing a little self-organizing couldn’t handle.

Next we needed to pick our delegates.

The caucuses on Saturday were the first of three stages. What we were doing was allotting 8 delegates to the county convention May 1st, where delegates to the state convention later this summer would be determined. The state convention allots the delegates who go to the national convention to vote for the nominee for President. Our final count/score was 6 delegates to 2, which meant we needed 12 Sanders people and 4 Clinton people, since for each delegate there is an alternate in case the delegate can’t make it. I asked for volunteers, first from the Clinton camp, since there were fewer of them, and had the four folks who stepped up fill out the yellow and blue forms. The Sanders contingent had more volunteers, and the six alternates were quickly designated and filled out their forms. I wanted to be one of the delegates, myself, having declined back in ’08, but there were seven of us. No one volunteered to step down, and the last thing I wanted to do was try and organize some kind of impromptu election, so I bowed out and let the other six take the forms.

T and I put the paperwork together in a pile, and she invited me to join her and her husband, who’d caucused for Clinton, for a drink at a bar/diner down the street. I thought that sounded lovely, but had plans to attend the Seattle Makers Market, which my girlfriend coordinates (why she couldn’t come caucus herself). It’s a good thing I knew where they went, though, as I shortly discovered a sheet she and I both had to sign off on. I had to wait a while, though, while the delegates shared contact info with each other to make sure they all made the county convention (four of the six all lived in the same building).

I tracked down T and her husband at the bar, where they were just finishing up, and I got her to fill out the paper we had to sign off on. I climbed the stairs to the ballroom where the caucuses had been scheduled, and laughed to myself at the notion they’d have been able to accomodate all the people coming out to caucus there, despite its relative spaciousness. That they didn’t foresee the number of people they got seemed pretty crazy to me, but hindsight’s 20/20 and all that. I handed off the stack of sign-in sheets and delegate allocation paperwork to a harried- but relieved-looking fellow who I thought might collapse from sheer relief, and then it was done.

In conclusion, I have to say that in spite of the lack of organization and foresight, I like the caucus system. I like it because it brings people together, face to face. I like that it requires more of a commitment than filling out a ballot (although I also like that Washington made provision for people who could not make it to the caucuses to indicate their preferences in a meaningful way). I like that it gives people an opportunity to change their minds after hearing their fellow citizens speak. Even if no one does. It’s messy, yes, and more complicated than perhaps might be ideal in a perfect world. But both times I have done it, I have come away encouraged and pleased that disagreements can exist and be channeled into useful, proportional results.

However annoying it gets, however inevitably disorganized and ad hoc, the same thought always runs through my head when I’m at one.

This is what democracy looks like.

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