I ran my third Democratic Party precinct caucus on March 6, 2018, and for me, the third time was a charm. In Boulder County, lingering semi-painful memories remain for many people from the chaotic 2016 caucuses, leading to thoughts ranging from “How do we tweak or reform the process?” to “Should we scrap the whole system?” These questions did not go away this year, though I believe most people who attended in both 2016 and 2018 will report a better experience this time around. Here are a few of my reasonably educated observations.
Technology – What a Concept!
The largest single problem I believe we suffered in 2016 was a gigantic bottleneck at the registration desk (I should emphasize “all-volunteer” desk, and thanks to the volunteers for hustling!). At Centennial Middle School in Boulder, this led to blocks-long lines just to get into the building. People were still trickling into “my” caucus up until nearly 8:40, and we were instructed before caucus that we had to leave the building by 9:00, so I was getting awfully uncomfortable after about 8:15 for that reason. Some people never got the chance to vote in caucus that evening, which trumps my discomfort exponentially.
The numbers of attendees in 2016 did include many people who only registered as Democrats to vote for Bernie Sanders. No matter – we weren’t ready for the volume, and many people had bad experiences. The Dem caucus between Obama and Hillary was packed to the point of near-claustrophobia as well, and in 2008 it was motivated Obama supporters caucus-rocking en masse. To put it mildly, it takes something strong to get people off the couch on a Tuesday evening!
In 2018, the Boulder County Democratic Party (BCDP) came up with a new preregistration system, which really helped. Preregistrees signed up online, and received a QR code that caucus volunteers could simply scan, beep-bip-boop, and attendees got their credentials basically just like that. The attendance numbers weren’t anything like 2016, but the 2018 registration process ran smoothly at Columbine Elementary. The old registration methods were still available, but I’d guess that most people preregistered, and I’ll give BCDP major thumbs up for this development.
Personal Interaction – Artificial Intelligence Hasn’t Taken Over Yet
I’ve been a caucus skeptic time-to-time, but this year, I came away with one big positive – the value of personal interaction – that I hadn’t fully considered in other years. Caucus is an event where people meet face to face with friends and neighbors, as opposed to communicating through Facebook or just voting a mail ballot in their living room. There are dimensions to spending time with actual humans that you just don’t get online (well, sure, there’s Skype, FaceTime, etc.…). You meet and see new people, you potentially gain new perspective from them, you hear the emotion in their voice, and you take part in a group dynamic where you can sense support for candidates and the demographic makeup of attendees.
At the candidate level, I’ve logged a lot of volunteer-hours with the Democratic Party, and have a certain extra respect for candidates who will caucus and stand before the party directly. I can understand why strategically it might be better for a candidate to petition onto the primary ballot, and petitioning is quite a bit of hard work in its own way. Some candidates I’ve really liked over time have taken the petition route, but if all other things are more or less equal, going through caucus or avoiding it might influence my primary vote. For the reasons in my last two paragraphs alone, I really hope we don’t scrap the caucus system entirely.
For another observation about personal interaction – as with class sizes in education, there are ideal caucus sizes, where most people in a group can feel like participatory members. “My” caucus size went from 7 in 2014 to 220 in 2016 to 40 this year. At 40, we had a decent conversation about the Governor’s candidates, and perhaps a quarter to a third of attendees offered comments. As the moderator, I was able to at least physically look at every person who attended, and I talked directly with many. I believe folks who wanted to say something during the meeting had an opportunity to do so. But at 220 people, most attendees did not get a chance to speak, and many waited a long time just to cast one vote. People like to participate, so finding a “just right” number is good for group dynamics, and I’m glad Colorado switched to a Presidential primary system since the 2020 election could generate as much interest as 2016.
Age: Much More than a Touch of Grey
Caucus tends to attract older people, but I’m not going to lead with the predictable here. My first point is that we’re all going deaf, whether we saw Black Sabbath in concert or not (I did) – and that means we need to consider sound quality as we choose facilities. I’ve been to two events in 2018 (including one of the big rooms this year at Columbine) in which the HVAC noise overhead made hearing folks very difficult if not impossible, to a certain extent regardless of age. A strong hint to all event organizers going forward – and I’m not blaming anyone for what’s happened in the past – we must make audibility part of event checklists, including the question “is there an HVAC, or can we turn it off while people are speaking?” If attendees are likely to be from the Jimi Hendrix generation, we are going to need sound systems that can deliver a clear signal to those ears that have been “experienced.”
I’m from that older generation, but have only one thing to say if young people didn’t put up great caucus attendance numbers – “It’s. So. Not. My. Fault.” I never thought about caucusing before hitting my 30s, when my body started going to hell, since I could easily think of 50 things I’d rather do than spending an evening seconding motions or listening to stump speeches from anyone not comparable to the Obamas or Cory Booker (electricity gets my attention).
I truly appreciated the young folks who did attend, but for many of the rest their absence was a choice to do something else, assuming they knew about caucus. Nobody over 18 was told they couldn’t participate due to their age. There were notifications in the papers and on social media (I’m sure I saw 100 posts or more). I sent out personal notifications that probably reached hundreds of people. But I can’t make caucus “hip,” if anyone says that anymore. It’s to a certain extent a function of party mechanics, really not everybody’s cup of tea (if anyone says that anymore), and it’s understandable if people aren’t interested.
Down-ballot Races: Grade of “Incomplete”
We had roughly 10 down-ballot races (county races, state offices) that we could have discussed at caucus, and in our caucus we got to three or four of them. With only a short period of time allotted, that’s more or less the best we could do. I’d guess that many attendees did not know most of the candidates, and I only knew about some of them because I did some extra research in the week leading up to caucus. I’ll guess that most caucuses also did not discuss many of the races due to time constraints, and the polling done that night was non-binding, so countywide tallies might be somewhat informative but certainly not conclusive.
I can’t say that we should have spent less time on the Governor’s race, therefore to spend more time on down-ballot races would almost certainly mean we’d need a longer caucus. I talked to a friend on caucus morning who threw out the idea of a day-long caucus, and before overworked volunteers start glaring at me – it was his idea, not mine. But it’s tough to learn much about a candidate if all you do is pick up a flier before caucus and hear a stump speech or two-sentence bio during the meeting. In many cases, these are races for important jobs involving large amounts of money and tough decisions. I’ll suggest for next caucus that folks research candidates ahead of time – BCDP had a “caucus candidate” webpage up ahead of caucus with links to candidate websites – but I know that’s not realistic for everyone.
Those who became delegates for the March 24 Boulder County Assembly will make votes that actually count toward qualifying for the primary on county candidates, but in my opinion it’s tough to conclude that the precinct caucus discussions will seriously guide many of those votes. I think the topic of how to address down-ballot races is worthy of review for 2020.
One Word I Really Don’t Want to Hear
On occasion, I see a mention that caucus is “anti-democratic.” This is a pet peeve of mine for a few reasons. For starters, it reminds me too much of calling someone “anti-American” when all they did was speak out. It’s just too harsh, judgmental, and negative of a word choice for my taste.
We have hybrid systems of electing and governing in this country, and this includes the republic in which we have the Electoral College (which I’ve criticized), and a delegative legislative system where the people elect officials, but once in office one person can vote for something a majority of voters might oppose. This type of system has its warts, yet having the mass electorate vote directly on everything would be unwieldy, and I feel comfortable saying most people don’t follow the broad range of issues in great enough detail to make quality decisions in timely manners.
I interviewed a Boulder City Council candidate (Camilo Casas, interesting guy) this year who supported a system called “Liquid Democracy,” in which registered voters could vote on city issues online, and the council member would cast his or her ultimate vote based on the results if participating in the Liquid Democracy system. However, Casas finished a distant last in the Council race, showing that Boulderites at least are not ready for that level of constant direct democracy. He might just be ahead of his time, but I’ll maintain that one or two large-scale elections per year are plenty for most Americans.
Plus, the caucus is merely “step one” in the process of selecting candidates. Candidates can petition to get on the primary ballot completely outside of the caucus/assembly process, multiple candidates can qualify through caucus/assembly, no person who’s properly registered can be denied participation in the caucus, unaffiliated voters can temporarily change registration to caucus, plus the primary election is a straight small-“d” democratic winner-take-all election – and it’s the election that counts.
I do feel the frustration of people who have to work on Tuesday evenings, or can’t find child care or transportation, or didn’t know about caucus. But caucus is a live meeting, and in America’s 24/7 system of capitalism, somebody will always have to work at the time of a live meeting. I have worked many, many eight-hour shifts on weekends and holidays, and I travel when possible. Therefore, I too miss meetings, and it’s really unavoidable at times.
Here’s a notification two years in advance – there will be a non-presidential caucus in 2020, and chances are good there will be caucuses every 2 years for at least the near-term future. It will be publicized on your county and state political party’s website, people can organize carpooling or babysitting with neighbors, people can try getting the shifts covered at work ahead of time, and some folks still won’t be able to attend. And I’m sorry, but I’ll still growl a bit if not in public if someone calls caucus anti-democratic, when it’s merely imperfect.
The Main Event and What It Means Going Forward
In 2018, we’re working for the first time with a system in which all registered Democrats and Republicans will get ballots for the June 26 primary election in the mail – as will all folks who are registered unaffiliated. In the past, unaffiliated voters could temporarily change registration to vote in a primary, but this year, all they have to do is choose which party’s ballot they want to fill out, then mail or turn their ballot back in. This adds some interesting dynamics to this year’s process, including determining the true value of caucus moving forward.
The main event at this year’s Democratic caucus was the preference poll for Governor’s candidates, and Cary Kennedy won by solid margins at “my” caucus, in Boulder County, and statewide. But only more than 23,000 Dems voted at caucus statewide, and you can expect many multiples of this number to vote in the primary. This will be a very unique year so it’s tough to guess turnout based on past elections, but I’ll offer one way to look at it. Republicans had four gubernatorial candidates on their 2014 primary ballot, and 384,749 people voted in that contest without all unaffiliated voters getting a ballot in the mail – more than 16 times the number voting in the Democratic caucus. In 2018, it’s not hard to imagine exactly four Democratic gubernatorial candidates, maybe five, on the primary ballot.
So, a few things really change post-caucus. Non-scientifically and with lots of exceptions, caucus tends to appeal to ultra-dedicated party members, along with more narrowly focused candidate or issue activists. Many Coloradans beyond typical caucus attendees don’t neatly fall into either category, and many primary voters won’t care at all who won in the caucus. Once a candidate gets on the ballot, they can focus on types of campaigning as if they were in a general election – paid ads, fliers/mailers, working the phones, door-knocking, social media – and the size of the operation really matters in a statewide race, which probably means money matters.
The Colorado campaign trails of history are littered with memories of candidates who won early races like caucus/assembly but fell in the primary, and that’s often because the caucus/assembly voting numbers are much smaller than a primary, potentially making it easier for dedicated activist/supporter turnout to push a candidate over the top. Also, the candidate who’s behind in March for a June primary gets a chance to refocus, hone the message, hit the demographic research, and in 2018 really figure out how to appeal to unaffiliated voters since the numbers are quite large.
I would compare caucus to a preseason football game. You shouldn’t get too worked up over winning, though you get nice front-page headlines and it’s better than losing. You can suffer a “season-ending injury” through a poor showing. If you’re somewhere in between, you’ve got a game under your belt and can examine what worked and what didn’t. And if you’ve been through a sports season, you know that the “playoffs” (primary) are vastly more competitive than the preseason. On the way to the big game, you practice, you sign new players if necessary, you spend money, and you don’t let up if you want to hoist a trophy.
In conclusion, I learned to really appreciate caucus this year, and as with many value judgments it’s because I finally understand my expectations.