Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Caucuses should be improved, not ditched

The Seattle Bothell Times continues its all-out assault on the First Amendment rights of political parties today with another whining Joni Balter column that preaches to and scolds the Democrats and the Republicans:
In the future, we should get rid of the caucuses (held this year Feb. 9) and switch to the primary for all voters, all parties.

For one thing, local election officials have a better record tallying votes. The best proof that the caucus system is full of holes came with the premature announcement by Republicans that McCain had won, while Mike Huckabee was still too close for that call to be made.

Vote counting by the parties can be sketchy.
Newsflash to Joni: Vote counting by any human is prone to error...because all humans make mistakes.

The big problem with the Republican caucuses was that Luke Esser turned himself into a news anchor and projected a winner when he should have been neutral in the background - and some of the GOP's organizers either didn't understand how to run their caucus, or they deliberately rolled their neighbors (because they're Republicans, and winning at any cost is a natural Republican behavior).

A political party has the right to hold its own internal election if it so chooses. That is the party's right under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (it's called freedom of assembly, Joni). Writing that "we should get rid of the caucuses" is disingenuous. Only the parties can decide not to use the caucus system. Caucuses can't be outlawed by the people of Washington, either by initiative or through our representatives in the state Legislature.

Are you trying to tell us that you belong to the Democratic and Republican parties, Joni? Or more specifically, that you sit on the central committees of both and are able to cast a vote on these matters?
Caucuses are quaint gatherings that are unwelcoming to the military, the disabled and a variety of other voters who don't want to sit around with their neighbors and hash out the decision.
Caucuses are not "quaint". They are simply grassroots meetings of people talking about politics in a classroom, church, library, or home. And though many in the traditional media talk about caucuses being affairs for only an elite, that's not the case. Today's caucuses are not smoke filled back rooms where party bosses cut deals with each other.

Caucuses are open gatherings.

I don't know about the Republicans, but I do know that we Democrats allow the disabled, our brothers and sisters in uniform, and those observing a religious solemnity to vote by proxy at the caucus. That you failed to mention this in your column, Joni, is a disservice to readers who may not understand that we in the Democratic Party care about being inclusive.

Sure, caucuses can get chaotic. But that's what democracy is all about: hands on political participation. Things can get a little messy.

There was an effort to make attendees feel welcome, though. Speaking for fellow Democrats, I know that volunteer organizers invested hours learning how to run a good meeting. Those are valuable civic skills that are hard to pick up.

The caucuses provide a training ground for many people to learn the basics of facilitation. The experience can come in very handy later when the time comes to chair a PTA gathering or emcee an event.

Unlike many diehard primary advocates, who won't say the same for the primary, I'll admit the caucus has its share of drawbacks.

There is no perfect system for selecting a nominee. However, if we could find a way to strengthen our caucuses so they allow for greater and easier participation, we could enjoy the main advantage offered by the primary while preserving the exercise of our party's First Amendment right of assembly.

Primary advocates argue that caucuses exclude people, and it's true, but only to a certain extent. (Opinion makers and pundits like Joni Balter, of course, prefer the primary because it gives them more influence).

This may come as a shock to Joni and other primary advocates, but there are actually instances where the primary - yes, the primary! - disenfranchises people while the caucus does not.

First example: young people - people who will turn eighteen by November 4th but won't be of that age by the date of the presidential primary.

Because they can't register to vote, they can't participate in a primary. However, per Democratic Party rules, they can sign in and vote at the caucus. And a great many did on February 9th. It was a wonderful feeling for me last week to be approached by smiling and energetic high school seniors asking where their precinct was, or who could take the voter registration form they were filling out.

Most were empowered by Barack Obama.

They turned out and their voices were heard.

But if we used the primary to pick our delegates, and did not hold a caucus, those seventeen year olds would not be able to participate. They would not have a vote.

The primary also excludes people already of voting age who are inspired to participate last minute but aren't registered to vote.

Because we do not have same day voter registration in Washington, someone new to politics can't show up on primary day (our primary, proudly brought to us by Sam Reed, is this Tuesday) and vote for a candidate.

They have to register weeks in advance.

But, at the caucus, citizens are able to sign in, declare they are a Democrat, and vote there, because participants simply have to certify that they are or will be a registered voter by November 4th.

What about the people who can't attend a caucus, though? People who don't have a choice? Democratic students going to college out of state, Democrats hard at work at their jobs, Democrats who are sick or in the hospital - our party has to find a way to allow their voices to be heard too.

Improving the caucuses would make the Democratic Party more democratic. It's a worthy goal that we should get to work on immediately.


Blogger Barbara said...

In Maine we have caucuses and we allow absentee voting.

February 17, 2008 3:18 PM  
Blogger Omir the Storyteller said...

You make a good point about the young people. Over in my precinct at least one of the delegates chosen to the LD convention was a high school senior. There might have been two.

I like the idea of caucuses, but like you, I'm certain there's room for improvement.

February 17, 2008 8:33 PM  
Blogger Blair said...

Actually the Democratic Party of Washington state also allows for absentee voting. All you have to do is download a form from their website and send it in.

February 18, 2008 12:47 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Blair, you are incorrect. Only the disabled, members of the armed forces, or those observing a religious solemnity may vote by proxy.

From the state Democratic Party website:

Can I vote absentee or by proxy in the Caucuses? No. There are only three reasons you can vote in the Caucuses without being there. If you serve in the military, have a medical condition that prevents your attendance, or for religious reasons cannot attend your Caucus, download our Caucus Surrogate Affidavit Form. You must return this form by 5:00 pm on February 1st. No one else can vote without being there. You can become a delegate without attending your Caucus by submitting a Declaration of Candidacy Form.

February 18, 2008 1:34 AM  

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