The Colorado caucus system works — sort of

The minuteae of the political process matter and are sometimes based on outdated systems.


Blue masking tape — that’s what makes the political process go around. Having just successfully (more or less) organized nine precincts for a caucus night in Colorado, I know all about approved tape for precinct signs. This is no joke. Someone dear to me spent her career as a janitor in public buildings. She knows all about how elections are lost by using the wrong kind of tape and honking off the staff.

There was more to it than tape, of course. I had to make sure we had enough tables for nine precincts and that each table had a packet full of really confusing instructions. I had to reassure folks that they could fit into the middle school cafeteria’s tiny seats. Somehow, we managed to get 411 people in there. In Boulder, I hear, chaos ensued. 

Former Colorado Sen. Mark Udall kciks off Boulder's 2016 Democratic caucus.

A caucus is step one in a system for selecting a presidential candidate. It's been with us since 1912 in Colorado, and many say it needs to be dumped. The automobile was young in 1912, after all, and Western roads were often mud bogs then. A caucus needed to be close enough that old Dobbin could pull the buggy there and be back to his oats before the moon went down. The system does have many outmoded aspects, but I’ll still give it a hearty cheer — two cheers, in fact, although not quite three.

In my state, the Republicans do only a pretty meaningless straw poll, while Democrats get to pick real delegates who attend a county convention. The discussion about who to pick can get pretty heated. I heard one Bernie supporter say that if Hillary is the nominee, she'll vote for Trump. Her reasoning? Both Trump and Bernie are not in the pocket of the big banks and hedge funds so they might do something “our ruling oligarchy hates, like keeping social security and putting in a real health plan.”

There were other interesting comments, too. One Hillary supporter reminded us that Clinton has been the target of millions of dollars worth of negative commentary and advertising for years and years. “She deserves better!” That was countered by Bernie supporters who reminded that Hillary has “never seen a Middle East war she didn't like.”

A Bernie supporter shouted that only the “sage of Vermont” can get us to look at how the defense budget is draining our resources. Inevitably, someone wanted to know why his neighbor was shooting off his mouth when he never shovels his snow. The laughter broke the tension at that precinct. I'd miss a lot of that byplay if we went to a primary system. A caucus lives up to its billing as grassroots neighborhood discussion.

My caucus was dominated by young, first-time voters.  One young woman was spellbinding as she pled with us to “get corporate America out of my bedroom and out of campaign finance.” Well over half were in their 20s and 30s. These folks were the ones who volunteered to be a delegate to the county assembly and maybe even the state convention. They were mostly Bernie supporters; the senator took the delegates by a ratio of three to one. But a few of them were Hillary supporters, too. They argued that Clinton has the best chance to beat Donald Trump in November. It was a fascinating discussion.

There are plenty of things wrong with the caucus system. Many people just can't get out on a Tuesday night to caucus. Some folks work at night. Parents of small kids have trouble enough finding a babysitter, and some seniors hate to drive after dark. The list of the excluded goes on and on, and so does the debate over the system.

Those who hate it always point to the complexities of delegate selection. And it is a complicated process. (Quick, now: What's your precinct number?) But this is how it works, in a nutshell: You take the number of votes each candidate gets, multiply that by the number of delegates the county central committee has allocated (three or four in most cases), and then divide that by the total number of caucus attendees. Now you have your numbers for Hillary and Bernie. I'm not making this up. For some reason this time, some caucuses wallowed in confusion, while people waited in long lines to get in. 

If we have another caucus in four years, I may volunteer to set it up again.  Still, I'll only give it two cheers. 

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He enjoys local politics in Colorado.

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