A Messy Kind of Democracy

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(Reno, NV)
Monday, January 21, 2008

This whole caucus thing was new to Nevada, and it showed. 
Connie: “You guys, they’re short on all those preference cards, so I’m calling right now.”
Caucus Greeter: “I’ve got 4 left.”
Connie: “Okay, well, they’re gonna have to send some over.”
That’s Connie Klooster.  She chaired the caucus at Precinct 2017, at Reno’s Smithridge Elementary School.  And 10 minutes before caucus time, she had a problem – the biggest problem you could have.  There weren’t enough presidential preference cards for all the people streaming through the door.

If you’re a caucusgoer and you don’t have your own preference card, your voice won’t count.  Two other precincts caucusing at the same elementary school had the same problem, and a Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman said other precincts across the state did too. 
Caucusgoer: “Connie, did you check in at the other places?”
Connie: “Yes, and they are out. They called and they were supposed to get new ones.”
Party volunteers had to drive from caucus to caucus to hand out more.  At Precinct 2017, after the preference cards ran out, precinct chair Connie Klooster used white sheets of paper. 
Connie: “Okay, it’s 11:30.  The people that are in precinct 2017, I need you to listen up.  The caucus is called to order right now.”
Running a caucus is kind of like herding cats.  There are three separate head counts, candidate elimination, people switching to different groups -- and plenty of crazy caucus math. 
Connie: “So what we do, we take the number of attendees of 55 and multiply it by 0.15…”
From the way supporters lined up, it was quickly clear that Obama would win, with Clinton a distant second.  No one else was viable. 
Connie: “How many are in the Obama group? 31.” (whooping) 
At this point, all but seven people supported either Clinton or Obama. 
Connie: “The people that are not in a viable group, the Biden person and Edwards people, they now have a chance to realign into another group.  Anybody can talk to them and encourage them to go for their candidate.”
This is what makes a caucus unique – the opportunity to vote for your second choice when your first choice misses the cut.  Normally, supporters of the remaining candidates lobby everyone else to join them.  But this caucus sorted itself out in seconds.  Four people joined Obama and the rest decided to be uncommitted.  Then, it was time to see if Clinton had caught up. 
Connie: “Did you guys get any more people in your group?  You guys are still 17.”
Obama now had twice as much support as Clinton.

Unlike a straight-forward primary, where one person equals one vote, caucuses award delegates.  After some more complex math, Precinct 2017 gave Obama five delegates and Clinton three.
As he left after the caucus, Clinton supporter Ryan Beeler said he’d definitely do it again. 
Ryan: “Before this, I was in California the only other time I voted, so I’ve done primaries before.  But it was great being able to see how it was done differently.”
And Barbara Bristow, who chaired another caucus at the same elementary school, said the first-time kinks wouldn’t drive her away, either. 
Barbara: “First time, they weren’t sure, they didn’t know what was happening, and so there was a problem.  But we worked it out, and that’s the Democratic process.”
A Democratic process that Iowa has mastered, but Nevada is still trying to figure out.