My Caucus Experience, by Reuel Robertson
The Democratic Caucus in Washington State is a grass roots affair, staffed with volunteers, and run with varying degrees of competence, confusion, boredom, and (if we are lucky) excitement. For my precinct, Churchill in King County, the Caucus was held at the Einstein Elementary gymnasium. That same gym served seven other Precincts as well, and on a normal year there would have been more than enough room for all of us.
I arrived early as a Barack Obama volunteer. We were not a very organized bunch, having somehow coalesced as a group just two days before via email and the phone calls of a very dedicated volunteer organizer named Jeremy. Two of us arrived at about 11:05am, well before the 1:00pm start time for the Caucus. We walked together into what looked like it must be Clinton Campaign Headquarters. There were Hillary posters everywhere, and about eight Clinton volunteers, who seemed very organized, and Hillary pins, and Hillary brochures! “Do you have any posters?” my fellow Obama volunteer asked me. I did not. The next Obama volunteer to arrive did not. The next after that did not. We all breathed a sigh of relief when our fifth volunteer arrived with 12 posters and 50 Obama pins. We were in the game, outgunned, but in it.
No one was in charge, but I remembered Jeremy’s email had mentioned Joyce in that role. Joyce seemed a little flustered when she realized that Jeremy was attending a caucus at a different location, but she gamely took charge and deployed a couple of “greeters,” got the posters hung, and figured out what to do. It became clear pretty quickly we’d have a big turnout, and the people just kept coming. I learned afterwards that attendance was about 250% of the number attending the 2004 Caucuses. Across the eight precincts 326 voters participated in that little gym, with many standing for lack of chairs. Their arrival is a sort of continuous blur in my memory. A few wanted details on Barack Obama’s qualifications or positions, but most just wanted help finding their Precinct table.
Jeremy had emailed us all Caucus rules along with some forms for counting votes and apportioning delegates; I had my copy with me. He’d also mentioned Joyce had the flu and we needed someone to speak on behalf of Barack for 2 minutes. I’d volunteered, and I’d even emailed a short draft speech to my fellow volunteers the night before. This minor preparation left me designated speaker by popular acclaim, despite little public speaking experience. My wife advised me “don’t read a speech; just have some bullet points in front of you.” Armed with those bullets, I stepped forward when the Democrat running our Caucus called for speakers on behalf of the two candidates.
I have rarely had people clap and cheer enthusiastically to anything I’ve said. Once when testifying about saving a state park from going private I got an ovation, but who wouldn’t cheer saving a park? Yet here I was, 15 seconds into my remarks, when mentioning Governor Gregiore’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President drew loud applause. I had trouble with the microphone but pressed on, drawing on the enthusiasm of the crowd, and experienced several more ovations during my short talk. I stressed Barack’s vision for changing how politics works, and for working together. But I knew, I felt along with most of the people in that room, that we were really cheering for Obama. He was responsible for the record turnout, and his supporters outnumbered the Clinton supporters by more than two and a half to one in that gymnasium. I was just lucky enough to be the one to talk to them about Barack Obama.
A woman spoke next for Senator Hillary Clinton, and she stressed Hillary’s qualifications and resume. Her talk was fine, and people clapped at all the right times, but the enthusiasm was noticeably lower. I admire that volunteer’s courage in speaking on behalf of her candidate, despite the clear preponderance of Obama supporters present, and in a way I felt the same sympathy for her I do for Hillary Clinton. In another election, against another candidate, Hillary Clinton would be the easy winner of the nomination. It is tough going against a movement though, and Barack’s campaign has become just that.
The real work of the Caucus then began. Each precinct elected a Chairman, who then appointed a Secretary and a Tally clerk. My neighbor, a former Edwards supporter, was elected Chairman and I was appointed Tally clerk. Voting is done in two stages; upon arrival there is an initial preference vote, then there is time for a freeform discussion, and finally there is a final vote. The 39 voters in the Churchill Precinct initially broke 28 for Obama, 7 for Clinton, and 4 undecided. Then everyone who wanted to speak for a candidate had a chance to, and about half a dozen spoke. Few one-on-one discussions took place, and the final round of voting came quickly. I asked a Clinton supporter to help me count the votes. Obama picked up two of the undecided’s, Clinton picked up one, and one remained undecided. I tallied the votes, filled out a form used to apportion delegates, and announced that Churchill’s 4 delegates would be split 3 for Obama and 1 for Clinton. Our Precinct then separated into Clinton and Obama groups to elect delegates and alternates.
Although we had 30 people in our Obama group, at first only one person volunteered to be a delegate. Having read the rules that Jeremy had emailed to me, I informed everyone that if we did not have 3 delegates to elect then Obama would forfeit any unfilled delegate slots. Three more hands went up. My wife Chris checked our calendar and found I’d be on a plane the day of the county Caucus, so I could not run for election as an Obama delegate. Each candidate delegate spoke briefly about why they wanted to be a delegate, and I asked each if they’d promise to vote for Obama at the next Caucus. All said yes. I carried a sheet of paper to each of the 30 Obama voters, and watched them vote for 3 of the 4 candidates. The top 3 vote getters became Obama delegates to the county Caucus and the 4th place finisher became an alternate. Two others volunteered to fill the last two alternate slots. For most of us we were now done.
I stayed late, first to help our Chairman pull all the paperwork together documenting our Precinct Caucus. Then I helped clean up, folding tables and chairs, and collecting results from other Precincts. In the end, across the eight Precincts, we’d elected 25 Obama delegates and 10 Clinton delegates. I basked in the glow of backing a winning candidate for a change (I was a Dean delegate in 2004), and of feeling a part of the win. It was only February 9th, and the Democratic Convention at the end of the Democratic primary seemed far away in time and distance. Yet it felt like something very important was happening now, state by state, all across the country. Hopes were beginning to be fulfilled.