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Washington State Presidential Caucus or Primary Discussion
September 29, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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It is Complicated!

In 2016 Washington State's delegates to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions were selected in a caucus. The results of the 2016 Washington State Democratic Caucus were that of the 26,345 attendees, 72.7% backed Bernie Sanders and 27.1% backed Hillary Clinton. As a result Sanders had 74 pledged delegates at the national convention, while Clinton had 27 from Washington State. The caucus was held on March 26.

A non-binding primary was then held by Washington State on May 24. 802,754 people voted. Ms. Clinton received 52.4% of the vote while Mr. Sanders received 47.6%. No delegates were assigned as a result of the primary. [Donald Trump won the Republican primary with 75% of the vote]

Did Sanders decline in popularity in the two months between these events? No, his campaign picked up steam. The difference outcomes reflected the difference between activists and rank-and-file.

On Wednesday, September 26, 2018 I attended a forum in Seattle about how delegates to the presidential nominating convention will be picked in 2018. The panel included Sophia Dannenberg, Co-Chair of the WSDCC rules committee, David McDonald, a local who is a member of the national rules committee for the DNC, and Javier Valdez, who is one of the 46th legislative district representatives in Olympia.

The United States of America has no consistent method of picking its presidential candidates. Each party has its own rules, both national and local, while state-level governments control the electoral process.

The Iowa State caucuses are a famous make-or-break moment in the Presidential election process. In a caucus people have to show up to participate. Not all caucuses are designed alike. Participation may vary based on how much of a time commitment caucus requires, how distant it is from the voter, and how high the bar is for being included as a party member.

Primaries are more consistent, but differences do exist. In many states voters can register in a party. Then it is clear which party primary they are entitled to vote in. But in others, in particular Washington State, no list of party membership is kept by the government. As a result activists who are not in a party can show up for a caucus, with no way of vetting them.

Trying to plan for the 2020 selection of the Washington State national delegates is not easy. There are disagreements in the Democratic Party here, and at the national level, about the value of caucuses versus primaries. There are the rules that have nevertheless been set by the national party, which if they are not followed, can result in a state delegation loosing its vote. But most of all there are the laws of the State of Washington, which currently do not allow for primary rules acceptable to the state party.

I believe, along with many Democratic Party activists, that a primary is the most democratic method to use. The argument is that caucuses effectively disenfranchise voters, really no different than the old poll taxes that were banned by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

Some activists like the caucuses (aside from favoring their candidate) because they encourage more active participation. You get to see your neighbors, have a discussion, maybe change your mind. Several people at the forum said they became active in the party after going to a caucus. Also, caucuses favor candidates with a passionate grass-roots following, as Mr. Sanders showed.

Caucuses have another defect. They can be a logistical nightmare. If large numbers of people turn out, then hall must be rented. If halls are rented well in advance, as must be the case, the money may be wasted if only a few people show up. On the other hand, holding them in people’s homes does not work if there is a large turnout, and many activists have small homes with accessibility problems. A lot of paperwork is required as well.

Primaries are run by the state, and if they coincide with other elections, have little additional cost. So what, really, is the problem with them?

My understanding from the discussion is that current law gives the Secretary of State (currently Kim Wyman, a Republican), power to decide who goes on the primary ballot. The Democratic Party wants a clear procedure to allow Democrats to be on its ballot similar to candidates for other offices. It does not want an "open" primary, where anyone of any affiliation can be on the ballot or vote. The problem goes back to the state's decision not to have voters register with a party. So members of the legislature are trying to write and pass a new law.

The default is to do caucuses again.

Of the related issues discussed, the main one was setting the date for the caucus or primary. There is some desire to have a west coast primary date, our own version of super Tuesday. That would require the cooperation of Oregon and California. So it probably will not happen.

Meanwhile we have a very important election for Congress and state offices this November.

People are sometimes criticized for working behind-the-scenes. Often these processes are actually transparent, other than not too many people being interested. Finding a way to make the election process as fair and open as possible is an example. Good people are working on it.

I hope Washington State Democrats can select our Presidential convention votes in a primary. In Washington State now our ballots come in the mail, and the reply has postage paid, so it is really easy to vote. But if we must caucus, then I want to make that process as simple as possible so more people can have a say.

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