Absurdly wonderful democracy: the caucus

Poster board signs with numbers written in Magic Marker.  Parking lot testimonials.  Paper ballots.  Ad-hoc scribes.

In other words:  The 2016 Washington Democratic presidential caucus.  A delightfully low-tech process during which you to sit in a crowded room with your neighbors and wait for your number to be called.  Kind of like getting a driver’s license, except no one’s really in charge.

Having never lived before in a caucus state, Saturday’s event was my first.  I joined a few people from my apartment complex in walking three blocks to Town Hall, a music and lecture venue in downtown Seattle, to caucus with other Democrats.

As I stepped into the building, a volunteer asked me, “Did you register online and fill out your voting form?  Do you have it with you?”  My answer was “yes” to both, so I was directed to the left, where I found a piece of poster board taped to the wall that had precinct numbers divided into “upstairs” and “downstairs.”  My precinct was “downstairs,” so that’s where I headed, into a large space that was standing-room-only with every race, gender and voting age represented.

There were no festive decorations.  No posters, bunting, or American flags.  Town Hall didn’t look any different from usual.  Just more crowded.  I politely pushed my way to a spot in the aisle and considered going back upstairs, turning in my voting form and leaving.  I knew whom I wanted as the Democratic candidate.  The caucus wasn’t going to change my vote.  But I felt swept up by the experience.  For the first time in years, maybe ever, I was gathered with my neighbors in a public space and, together, we were going to make a decision about our future.

So I stayed in my aisle spot and waited to find out what came next.

A few minutes after 10 am, one of the caucus organizers took the stage and gave us the rules:

  1. Don’t start caucusing until 10:30 am.
  2. Don’t stop caucusing until after 11:00 am.

Someone sitting in front shouted, “We need a real primary,” but no one agreed, no one said anything, and the man on stage ignored him.  We were told, “When I call your precinct number, raise your hand.”  This part was interesting, because there weren’t any precinct leaders.  A random someone with a raised hand was given a poster board with the precinct number written on it and told to stand against a wall.  After all the signs had been given out, the rest of us wandered the room, looking for our precincts.

“Should we go outside?” someone in our group asked, once we’d assembled.  We all shrugged and mumbled “okay,” and moved like lemmings to the back parking lot.

The woman holding the precinct sign continued leading our group, which was made up of about about 30 people.  She collected our voting forms, which had two boxes, one for our nominee choice before the caucus and another for after, in case we changed our minds.  Then the woman told us to stand on her right if we supported Sanders and on her left if we supported Clinton.

“Wow,” the guy next to me said.  “There’s a real generational divide here.”  And there was.  The Sanders supporters outnumbered the Clinton supporters 3-to-1, and most were under 30.

I don’t know if our group was representative of Democrats across the country.  But as the testimonials began, alternating speakers from each side, one thing became clear:   The people supporting Clinton did so for a variety reasons, from her experience to her greater electability, while there was a solidarity to the Sanders group.  Their speakers all talked about failing institutions – education, health care, Congress, corporations, the economy, society – and I was struck by how different I’d been at their age, when I saw the world as my oyster.  These voters were more cynical, more distrustful, more scared.

Life in America, as they described it, resembled a Hobbesian state of nature:  poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Bernie Sanders offered them hope.

They also believed he was the only candidate who cared about the underserved and underrepresented.  “I’m voting for Sanders,” one person said, “because I want to vote for a Democrat.”  Those of us in the Clinton camp, who’ve followed her career for twenty years, were surprised by his comment.

“She was supporting gay rights in the early ‘90’s,” one man said.  “Long before most other public figures.”  I informed the group that Hillary was one of the first to put universal health care coverage on the table, that she’d wanted to lead the effort to reform our system during Bill Clinton’s first term, and for that, she’d been labeled “Lady Macbeth.”

“She’s had to learn to be a woman politician,” I said.  “So if she seems more moderate, more measured, it’s because of what she’s experienced.  She’s had to become less outspoken to survive.”

A Sanders supporter, a young white man, responded, “If she were a real leader, she wouldn’t have backed off.  She would have kept speaking out.”  I listened, knowing I could never make him understand what it’s like to be a woman in politics, in business, in America, in the world in general.

“Whomever you vote for,” I said instead, “remember this day.  Remember that you stood in a parking lot and respectfully exchanged political views with people who disagree with you.  Remember what it felt like, that it’s possible.”

At 11:00 am, we finished our testimonials, and our scribe, who had become our sergeant-at-arms, asked if anyone wanted to change their vote.

No one did.  So we elected our delegates, three for Sanders and one for Hillary.  And then our group dispersed, all of us leaving the downtown parking lot, scattering in different directions, and bringing our caucus to an end.