Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adventures in Caucusing

What IS a Caucus-race? said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

Why, said the Dodo, the best way to explain it is to do it. (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (the exact shape doesn't matter, it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no One, two, three, and away, but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out The race is over! and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, But who has won?

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.

But who is to give the prizes? quite a chorus of voices asked.

Why, SHE, of course, said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, Prizes! Prizes!

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.

But she must have a prize herself, you know, said the Mouse.

Of course, the Dodo replied very gravely. What else have you got in your pocket? he went on, turning to Alice.

Only a thimble, said Alice sadly.

Hand it over here, said the Dodo.

Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.

--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

When Lewis Carroll wrote about the Caucus-race, he was deliberately satirizing the political process in England in his time. Oddly enough, a real caucus-race looks pretty much identical to the one he described, except that there weren't any birds and I never got a thimble for a prize. I did bring my knitting, anyway.

Because I'm an Independent, I've never declared membership in either political party. This means that I've never been able to participate in primaries or caucuses in any of the various states in which I've lived since reaching the age of 18. I pretty much expected that The Man (a registered Democrat) would be able to caucus today and I'd have to stay home, awaiting the results.

Come to find out, Independents may participate. We have to register as Dems for the day, but we may change our party (non-) affiliations back again afterward. This seemed like a small price to pay to a chance to stand up (literally) for what we believed in.

I packed up my knitting and Greg, and we slogged through the latest installment of snow to the local elementary school. Even though we were in the midst of the 428th snow storm of the season and there wasn't much room to park at the school, we managed to find plenty of space. Crabapple Cove is a town of roughly 2500 souls, and probably 60 of those are Democrats. Oh, excuse me -- 58 are Democrats. The guy standing behind me and I were the Independents in the crowd.

One of my neighbors greeted us as we walked through the door into the school gym. She indicated that we needed to join the check-in line before we could do anything else. We complied, got ourselves checked off on the voter rolls, and I filled out my yellow Democrat-for-a-Day card.

That was when things started to derail, though. About halfway through the very slow line ahead of us, they ran out of forms, so we were unable to fill anything out. The line to fill in ballot signatures was only a few people deep, but it didn't move at all. What's worst: they ran out of coffee. I felt sympathy for the poor guy who was attempting to run things. It was his first time at running a caucus, he didn't have many people available to help him, and no one else in the room appeared to know what to do, either.

Greg and I made it as far as the ballots and signed some, then took our seats. Our host introduced himself, solicited help from the crowd, and asked for volunteers to speak on behalf of each candidate. The volunteer who manned the laptop with the videos and monitored the ballot sheets read a statement from our state Representative.

Meanwhile, we were treated to a running commentary from a couple of crusty old farts sitting next to us. "Volunteers are great people," one of them said to the other. "I ain't one of 'em, though."

"Volunteerin' don't pay too good," replied his companion. "Who'd want to take a job that don't pay?"

"Nope," agreed the first one. "That don't make no sense."

After much discussion both at the front and at the back of the room, it finally came time to exemplify that old cliche "stand up and be counted." The Obama supporters lined up on one side of the room. The Clinton supporters lined up on the other side. The three Undecided voters clustered together in the middle, looking a bit like prey animals waiting for an attack from a predator.

The harried man-in-charge did his best to count the number of supporters on both sides, gave up, and had us count off the way we did in grade-school gym class. Meanwhile, supporters for each candidate approached the Undecided voters and tried to persuade them to declare support for one candidate or another. One Obama supporter left to join the Clinton side. Greg emerged from the restroom and joined the Obama side. Two of the Undecided voters left their neutral territory in the middle of the gym, one for each side. One lone Undecided voter remained. The woman standing next to me waved to her husband across the room. "We were undecided until we got here," she told me.

Next, we all sat down again. The man-in-charge read the numbers from his tally sheet, and declared that Obama had won three delegates to Clinton's two. Next, we needed to separate again to choose delegates and alternates to represent the town at the state (and possibly the national) conventions.

"When are the dates of the state convention?" called someone. "June 10th?" "No, not June 10th. It's three days." "When is it again?" It took a great deal of scrambling, but eventually the dates of May 29 and 30 and June 1 were retrieved and offered up. Just then, three more people came into the gym. After some argument, it was decided that the three latecomers could join their respective sides, but that a formal recount wouldn't happen, since some people had already left the building. Two latecomers left the Undecided area to join the Clinton side. The last latecomer kept the other lone Undecided company in the middle of the room.

Eventually, delegates and alternates were chosen for both sides, and people returned to their seats to pick up their coats. The man-in-charge asked people to donate money toward the refreshments and to the Clean Election fund, and reminded people to sign the ballot sheets. Folks were already streaming out the door to brush off their cars and fight the snow on the way home. This whole process had only taken about an hour, but it felt like a week. I sent a text message to to let her know that we were done caucusing. Assuming the weather ever improved, we were free to meet her and Val for a beer.

I later heard from Dale that her experience caucusing in her town was vastly different. Although it sounded like fun being able to chant for your candidate to convince the Undecideds, their caucus involved standing in long lines in the snow and move-your-vehicle requests from the local constabulary. They didn't finish until 4. Dale volunteered to be a delegate to the state convention, so she can do some more chanting for Hillary. It worked for her town's Undecideds, anyway.


Pamela said...

This is priceless! I'm so glad you shared. I thought my experiences as a new voter in New York State were bad (discovering through serendipity that primary polls don't open until noon & using the same kind of voting machine Michael's parents used 30 years ago in Alabama), but this is an even better story.

Flymaine said...

Oh you got off easy! It took us 2.5 hours just to get in the door. Once in the police showed up and told us that anyone parked where we were parked had to move or else...not sure what the or else would be... we moved. We squeezed about 280 folks in the little community center, counted off a few times, rangled a few undeclared/undecided and after 4 hours, the results were in. 157 for Clinton, 112 for Obama, a few for some democrats already out of the race and 2 undecided yet.

Interesting process, glad we only do it every four years!