By Katie Herzog
There are some things worth feeling nostalgia over: childhood snow days, mom's mac and cheese, and smoking come to mind. Then there are some things not worth an ounce of nostalgia, and at the top of that list is the Washington State caucus system.
Washington typically selects its presidential nominee by an in-person caucus.
Thanks to some dumb state laws, we also hold a primary, which is completely nonbinding and held months after the caucus has been decided. In 2016, that meaningless primary cost taxpayers $9 million. It's basically a very expensive circle jerk, sans orgasm at the end.
In slightly less crazy states, there is no caucus. There's simply a primary that mirrors a general election: You cast your vote by ballot. Plus, Washington State has a vote-by-mail system, which makes everything stunningly easy. You don't get those neat little "I Voted" stickers, but that seems like a small price to pay to skip the lines and get to vote at home in your underwear next to your cat and your bong. Studies show that voting by mail increases voter turnout.
Caucuses, on the other hand, require that voters go, in person, to a designated location in their district. This tends to be a community center, library, town hall, school gym, or, if you live on Capitol Hill, dance studio.
On the appointed day (to make matters worse, it tends to be a Saturday), everyone lines up and files in. Very, very slowly. Precinct captains are selected, votes are casts, and the results tallied and announced. Voters can attempt to sway their neighbors, and if there's no clear majority, the whole thing happens again.
This takes, at minimum, two hours. On a Saturday!
The problems with caucusing are obvious. Not everyone has two hours free—for instance, parents who have to either get childcare or duct-tape their little darlings mouths' shut.
It's possible to fill out an absentee form if you can't caucus due to religious observance, military service, work schedule, disability, or illness—but anything else, and you're shit out of luck. No civic process for you. (And, no, hangovers don't count as an illness.)
The barriers to caucusing mean that the people who show up tend to be disproportionately white, upper class, and retired. In 2008, according to a study out of Harvard, the turnout rate in caucus states was an average of just 6 percent. In 2016 in Washington State, only 230,000 Democrats in the state showed up, compared to more than 800,000 who voted in the completely meaningless primary. Clearly, one of these systems needs to be drowned in the bathtub, and the one worth saving is the one where more people vote.
Who to blame for the stupid caucus? The political parties. While the state runs the primary, it's the parties that run the caucus. I asked a spokesperson for the state Democrats in 2016 about why to even have a caucus, and he said: "We're not trying to be representative of the Washington State electorate. We're trying to be representative of Washington State Democrats." He also said, "It's like a block party." In that case, it's a block party that no one (but Eli) wants to go to.
By Eli Sanders
Even though state Democrats have not finished collecting feedback (go to waelectioncenter.com through April 4 to weigh in), I'm guessing we're probably going to ditch the caucus system.
Honestly, I'm fine with that, for all the reasons Katie outlines. It's inarguably the case that caucuses, as currently designed, are exclusionary, low-turnout affairs that privilege mobile people who can afford to take hours out of their day to jawbone with their neighbors in sweaty public-school gymnasiums and run-down community centers.
Having been at the historic 2008 caucus in Iowa that shocked America by launching the first presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, and having attended the raucous 2016 battle-in-Seattle-style caucus that helped throw Washington State's support behind Bernie Sanders, I don't think of caucuses as being rigged, establishment-protecting, faits accomplis.
They're messy, yes. They can be annoyingly tedious, sure. But when they go well, they're the embodiment of a phrase often invoked yet rarely witnessed: democracy in action.
Caucuses are citizens talking with other citizens, face to face, unmediated by televisions or smartphones or computer screens, about matters big and small. They're full of folks who don't normally talk politics suddenly airing their views, correcting others' misconceptions, convincing and being convinced, and then voting, accepting the outcome, and, if the outcome is not what they wanted, making plans to convince more people in the future. Democracy! In! Action!
Yes, it's democracy in action with a significant percentage of potential voters missing. That's a serious problem that could be potentially fixed, though I doubt there's enough money in the Democratic Party to do it this year—or maybe ever.
Perhaps more important, the cultural tide is moving hard against forced, in-the-flesh conversations with anyone. Instead, the most desired interactions today seem to be the ones with the least friction, experiences that move at precisely the pace YOU want and that deliver, without any human involved if at all possible, the exact thing that YOU already believe or already know for sure YOU need.
Caucuses, like some of life's other deep pleasures, move at an unpredictable pace and involve many kinds of human-created friction. Also, they're not just about YOU. Worst of all, you can't do them with earbuds in.
But hey, if this all sounds like dumb, grandpa-in-his-rocker nostalgia for an era that's rightly in the dustbin, don't worry—you win!
This year's moved-up, spiffed-up, all-mail-in presidential primary (held by the state, no matter what the Democratic Party decides to do) will let you cast your vote while wearing your earbuds, shopping for nail clippers on Amazon, etc.
Also, as Danny Westneat pointed out recently in the Seattle Times, this brand-new primary is a giant data-collection exercise—just like the internet! So you'll feel right at home as you fill in your ballot bubbles from within your own little bubble and, in the process, give political data collectors in this state information on your political party preference, your address, your name, and more. Congratulations!