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January 03, 2008

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I was just watching on cable news some coverage (frigging all day and last evening long) and they also were explaining how one side of the room who has more voters for one candidate goes over to the other side of the room to sway voters of a candidate that has less tally to come on over...you are right what a friggin mess. This is what day and age? Geezus in the day and age of tinier cell phones and ones that can almost cook dinner for you we still go through this cave man type of stuff for a leader that decides our futures. Can we get real? For once? Geezus why not just hook up polls to the ATM MACHINES and be done with it. ;-)

Sorry to profoundly disagree. Minnesota has essentially the same rules and process as Iowa, and I think I have led ten Precinct Caucuses in my life, and my precinct turns out at least 250 DFL'ers every two years.

What you don't see is how the counting is actually done. In Iowa they close the door and take two counts so as to arrive at the viability number. Here in Minnesota, we ring a bell, draw lines on the sign up sheet, and the tellers count how many signed in. As Chair, I got to ring the bell and appoint the tellers. Unless you know the rules and what they are about, you wouldn't even see it happen.

Why do you need a count for viability? -- because you have to calculate how many need to be in a sub-caucus for it to be viable based on dividing your total by the number of assigned delegates. How do you get the number of assigned delegates? it is based on your party index in general elections over three elections. The idea is to weight delegations that endorse candidates in favor of stronger majority precincts and districts. My Precinct really maxed out in 2004 for Kerry -- something like 2700 to 600 votes, meaning we get to elect lots of delegates.

The caucus system is a child of the old smoke filled room -- except there is no smoke anymore, and anyone who is willing to Swear or Affirm that they are a DFL'er can come and vote. It takes a little money to be successful (mailings and all) but it really values ability to organize over everything else. You can watch it on TV, and not see the underlying organization, but believe me, every precinct in Iowa has a chair for each candidate, and for the past six months they have been recruiting their neighbors into their group. They have phone trees, they use E-mail these days, and they have probably had a pie and coffee at the neighborhood or town cafe at least once a week for the past several months. In Iowa they have had at least two or three chances to see all the candidates in person at an event near their precinct. You can't see all that on TV. For some reason the National Press has never discovered the pie and coffee meetings where all the pre-caucus political argument occurs.

The benefits of the system are huge. This whole culture is designed to build the party -- to bring in new members, engage folk in campaigns, and provide a means to really get involved in politics, local, state and National. Everyone who shows up at caucus can be recruited to do campaign work -- maybe attend low dollar fund raisers for local and state candidates, and if there is a burning issue for your neighborhood -- lobby at the city council or the State Legislature. You can recruit them to do phone banking before elections. And if you win -- well you have a party and begin to plot the next election.

Sara, I think you and I are highlighting the same points of the system, but you see them as beneficial and I see them as just a complicated mess. I've never lived in a caucus state, and maybe I'd feel differently if I'd been through the process. But, as an observer from the outside, they're an incredibly frustrating process (I won't say "undemocratic," because in fact they are very close to the way Congress actually works -- but of course I find Congress frustrating as well!)

The first point is the informal hay-dee-ho way they're run, at night, at a specified time, sometimes in someone's home, with no option (is there?) for absentee voting. What is the benefit of making it so difficult for the disabled and infirm to participate? It's great that Democratic turnout doubled this year to around 200,000, but Iowa Democratic registration numbers are in the neighborhood of 600,000 with more than 700,000 additional independents and almost 600,000 Republicans. That puts overall turnout somewhere under 20% -- for a state that widely hails itself as taking its role in the nomination process "very seriously." I don't doubt that they take it seriously, but if you can only vote on-site, at a particular time, I'm sure many people are working or unable to leave their homes at that hour (not just the disabled and the late-shift workers, but even parents of young kids who don't want to bring them to a two-hour political meeting). Is your view that caucuses don't decrease participation, or that the numbers are smaller but it's such a more active kind of participation for those who attend that it's worth it?

Second, the caucuses themselves, as you point out, involve a lot of discussion among neighbors, at the caucus itself and in the weeks leading up to it. Personally, I would hate that. I want to be able to form an opinion on my own, and hold it, and not have to defend it or convince others -- I'm happy to discuss it with interested people, but obviously the discussions that go on surrounding the caucus are more about persuading those you disagree with. I'll tell you that if I lived there, I would be hard-pressed to participate in a caucus, just because I don't enjoy that kind of face-to-face politics. I think I should be able to vote for whom I want, and not have to defend it or be harangued about it. So I guess I'm asking, why is it a plus to exclude people like me?

Finally, the mechanics of the complicated caucus math are frustrating. As you point out, delegates are assigned based on past behavior of a precinct, not necessarily proportional to population (or anything else). We still have no idea how many Iowans voted for Obama last night, or if it was more or less than voted for Edwards or Clinton. And we never will! What is the benefit of having a process that is completely opaque, that is, not at all transparent? I think I always prefer openness and transparency in government and especially in elections. As a second point about the mechanics of the caucuses, the "viability" rule also seems patently unfair and antiquated. What is the benefit of reducing a candidate with 12% support statewide to zero representation, while giving a candidate with 100% support in just a couple of precincts 2% representation? Isn't the candidate with low-level but broad appeal as deserving of representation as one who appeals to only extremists in a few neighborhoods? It feels like a holdover from days when certain religious or ethnic groups would be concentrated to a few precincts -- and, combined with the nontransparent manipulation of how precincts are awarded delegates, it feels like an old-fashioned way of letting the votes from some blocs count less than those from the wider population. Essentially, if they don't live where they "should" (and they're less than 15%) then don't count them at all, and if they are isolated in a precinct, keep their votes concentrated there but don't award them many delegates -- and don't let anyone see the numbers, so they'll never know.

Obviously, to me, the fairness of a straight and transparent vote count with equal representation seems to outweigh whatever party-building benefits the caucuses offer. (And really, when it comes to strong state parties, are we saying that states with primaries never have strong parties? I don't think that holds up.)

The "punch it into your cellphone" model works well with the alienating market models that are being used to justify all sorts of distortions these days.

Democracy requires education and discussion. Discussing your political choices with your neighbors is an important part of the process. The caucuses recognize this and encourage it.

So far, all our wonderful new media have been used far too much to broad- and narrow-cast the candidates' messages to us. Looking at the activity (so far) of the Democratic Congress, to which a message was allegedly sent last November, we have to wonder whether the candidates, too, are living in their own bubbles.

So discussion is good. "Let's vote and get it over with" leads to the candidates' current expectations that they can buy your vote and then do as they want.

CKR, are you saying that you feel like candidates have more control over their message with new media technology? I feel like the internet has been used mainly by bloggers and others to reduce, not increase, the control the candidates have over their own campaigns. And the most successful "new media" candidates have been those (like Howard Dean and, to my chagrin, Ron Paul) who gave their supporters tools and encouragement to create their own version of the candidate, not necessarily the image the candidate sought to put out there.

Obviously I'm not against political discussion. I just think it should be optional, and that the final decision you reach should be your own -- you shouldn't have to face intimidation or pressure from your neighbors if you choose to vote differently. Political discussion among neighbors should precede the vote, not be required to cast it, and the choice to discuss (or disclose) one's vote should be left to the voter. I'm all for those who choose to discuss it, but when we're trumpeting (at best) 20% turnout as a huge victory, up from 10% in most years, it's hard to argue that the caucuses foster political activism and participation.

I think that we're all still learning to use the new media technologies. I think that we bloggers are able to disrupt various kinds of disinformation, but the fact is that the MSM and the candidates have far more in the way of resources than we have.

I'll agree that Dean and Paul have been more innovative than the others in using the internet, but it may not just be a lack of innovation. It may be the realization that the message is no longer so controllable, so let's just do the sameoldsameold, put out the nicely packaged ads, but put them on the internet and say nice things in a nicely personal way to all those nice people looking in at their convenience. And, oh yeah, ask them for their credit card numbers.

I haven't seen much from the blogosphere to break through the manufacturing of the candidates so far. But we've got eleven months to go...

Aah comments. In Minnesota we sorta have a means to deal with absentees who might want to attend a caucus. We -- among other things -- have a state law forbidding any other public meeting the night of the caucus. We also allow for people who must work during caucus to write a letter to their precinct caucus chair with a vote for sub-caucus preference, with a resolution they wish to have offered, and with a statement they wish to be considered as a potential delegate -- but only if you are sick, in the hospital, or required to work. So you can quasi do the absentee thing if you take the trouble to write the letter. Iowa Democrats could easily fix this part of their process through a change in party rules.

What we are about, after all, is expressing preferences on public policy and the elected officials who will execute it -- and while the privacy of the voting booth is one thing in a General Election, ideas about policy and leadership need to be tested in public. A caucus is a great setting in which to actually do this, particularly if you have built up the culture of discourse to support it. A caucus is where movements outside the party structure and policy meet head on -- sometimes clash, but frequently also provide the base for forming coalitions. For instance this year you are going to see all over the country huge petition drives for a party plank committed to single payer Universal Health Care. It's huge, I would say it is as profound as when Hubert Humphrey delivered the Sunshine Speech in 1948. You are not going to see many delegates selected for Denver who will not be forced to commit to that principle, and perhaps vote in a floor fight against any cautious plank that comes out of a platform committee. This cannot be "private" -- it is public policy and must be done in public. To say the least, it is also about confronting powerful industry lobbies in the public marketplace of ideas. You can't vote such an issue in a primary -- you certainly can organize for it in a caucus.

As for the math that weights precincts in terms of past performance in General Elections -- well, do you want to advantage the strong party areas in terms of policy and leadership -- or do you think areas that are less party identified should have such leverage? I certainly don't want to advantage a lazy precinct that doesn't get out the vote for endorsed candidates. Precincts where 100% of your strength get out and vote should have a much stronger voice than the lazy ones that only get 20% out for a General Election.

As to cutting off the non-viable sub-caucuses -- again, we should have about 95 Minnesota Delegates in Denver, and I want them to proportionally represent the candidates who have real centers of strength in the state. I don't want it divided into small factions that can't go anywhere. But rather than allow the party leadership to play games with who is and who isn't viable -- I prefer the overall DNC rule -- if you can't show sufficent organization to get to 15%, let the people at the lowest possible level exercise their second choice.

As to the internet -- it is still too new to see whether all possible uses have been discovered and tested. Yes, Dean and Paul have been good examples that need analysis to see what they achieved (for my mind, sending a bunch of orange hatted folk to Iowa at great expense did not actually accomplish all that much -- except that Howard Dean has done a grand job rebuilding our party, and I doubt if that would have moved off the dime had the movement not pre-dated the DNC election.) There are already a whole new breed who have come to understand how to get elected to their State Central Committee or to the DNC, and that is an unanticipated outcome. I would also classify the Lamont campaign last year as an example of what can be done. I think it will bear fruit in future years. I think thus far a well focused insurgency is more the property of the net than some other forms -- witness what Josh Marshall accomplished against Bush's move against Social Security. And while a trial is not necessarily political, I do believe that blogger attention and pressure had a lot to do with actually getting the Plame/Libby trial all the way to a Jury Decision. What we haven't done yet is a serious analysis of these examples -- analysis that would point the way toward being more effective and powerful.

I heard the Republicans did their caucus in a fairly civilized manner. They reported to the appointed place. Put some names on a sheet of paper and went home.

My gut feeling is that a caucus actully comes up with a better representation of what everyday citizens really want. The churning of community discussion is a good thing.

And EP I can understand not wanting to get out and churn, but in a way you already do - right here. You may have had more impact on the outcome of the IC than any single participant, by only 3 or 4 Iowans reading your post. From here you can inject ideas into the populace and they get out and churn them, perhaps the good ideas, or a better clarity of an issue takes hold, and the caucus actully carries forward a bit of you.

Hell, I wish they were all caucuses. It puts more influance into the hands of ordinary citizens as opposed to the well funded influence peddlers. Internet is helping with shaping issues in the primaries, but places like this will have far more impact in the caucus environment.

I read somewhere that Caucuses are not very predictive of election outcome - well guess what the true will of the people isn't either. When MSM is left the job of helping people decide, those who control the message control the outcome. And those with $$$ control the message.

Fortunately the internet is moving elections perhaps a bit toward one big caucus, but we have a long way to go. Those with a stranglehold on power in this country are not going to let go easily.

I don't understand why "the privacy of the voting booth is one thing in a General Election" but that in a primary ideas about policy need to be discussed in a caucus. If anything, to me, this is completely backward. At a primary you are simply picking a candidate -- there is very little opportunity to discuss policy positions (especially in a party primary where the policy differences between candidates are minute compared to what they have in common). In contrast, in a general election you are typically voting on candidates as well as several policy measures directly by ballot referendum (in some states like California there are an enormous number of these, but even here in New York there can be a hefty handful). So, if anything, it seems that the time to discuss public policy matters is in the general when you are voting on them, not in the primary when you are picking among typically 2 or 3 candidates with basically similar views. So, this rationale for caucusing in the primary but keeping privacy in the general doesn't make sense to me.

I also don't understand why public discussion is being equated with vote-wangling at the polling place. To me, public discussion means thoughtful exchanges over several weeks or months (and, in fact, the internet is very good for this, especially for those of us who prefer time to mull an idea & then reply rather than have to think on our feet in face-to-face, sometimes confrontational, encounters). An extra hour or two of last-minute persuasion just before you cast your vote seems, to me, to be more prone to voter intimidation than to thoughtful, deliberative discussion. [I understand there is also a lot of discussion leading up to the caucuses, but of course that's true for primaries and any other election as well.]

As to the funny caucus math: of course, I would not want to give additional weight to precincts with poor Democratic turnout, but I wouldn't want to give additional weight to precincts with high turnout either. I think everybody's vote should be counted equally. (In fact, that is a principle Democrats have recently been fighting for with some vigor!) Maybe this is coming from my viewpoint as someone who tends to move states every 4-6 years, but -- especially for students in Iowa -- having your own vote docked based not just on your neighbors behavior, but on the behavior of residents of your precinct before you even lived there is just absurd to me! As to the non-viability, I'm fine with having the state get behind "major" (>15%) candidates, but I don't understand the preference for candidates with a very few power centers and no statewide support over candidates with few power centers but broad-based, statewide support (who would typically be under 15% in many precincts and therefore be zeroed out). It would make more sense, to me, to have regular ballots casts with second and third choices listed, and do the "realignment" step statewide, after all the votes are in.

This still doesn't address the total lack of transparency that this funny math generates, which may be a future post on its own.

I ran across this over at Raw story:

http://www.atlargely.com/2008/01/sibel-speaks-pa.html

Anyone want to elaborate - very very interesting, but I'm without a clue.

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