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Sunday, February 08, 2004

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

As most of the nation knows by now, yesterday Washington held it's Democratic Presidential Caucus, and as expected Sen. John Kerry continued his winning streak, taking a commanding percentage of the vote count both here as well as in Michigan (and as of this writing also easily sweeping the Maine caucuses held today). This was a big blow to Howard Dean's chances to stay in the fray, as he campaigned heavily in this state, and his relatively meagre showing this weekend makes it increasingly unlikely that he'll be able to stay in the race until the National Democratic Convention in late July.

Which is really a shame, not just for candidate personally, but also for the many people -- myself included -- who have been energized by his brash, no-holds-barred style of campaigning. Although I've been somewhat active in the local Democratic party for a number of years, Dean's entry into the race last fall seemed like a breath of fresh air after nearly four years of what has amounted to Dems on the national scene at least (our blunt, outspoken, shoot-from-the-hip Congressman Jim McDermott being a notable exception) rolling over on just about everything the Bush Administration has sent their way. Granted, it's tough when your the minority party, but it's only been in the last few weeks that any Democrat other than Dean has had both their own name and the word "spine" used favorably together in the same sentence.

Regardless of whether or not Dean is forced out of the running in the next few weeks, there's little doubt but that both the issues he's kept in the forefront, as well as his more confrontational style of campaigning has had a lauditory effect, particularly on Kerry who for the past month or so has pretty much restructured his entire approach using the Dean playbook as his guide. So, in one sense Dean and his supporters may have lost the battle, but in effect won the war, as they've effectively forced the Kerry campaign to change course in a manner that makes the rhetoric at least sound more and more like Dean's with each passing day.

The real disappointment yesterday, however, was just how much "the electability factor" has come into play. It seems that many otherwise sensible Democrats are ready and willing to sacrifice principles in exchange for backing the "winning horse" as it were, which frankly I find a bit disturbing. Sure, it's important to slate a viable candidate in November, but I bristle at the idea that a candidate's stance on the issues is less important than whether or not he's popular with the electorate; this is exactly how Bush got into the White House in the first place (SCOTUS not withstanding), and it just feels like we're subtly being forced to use the Republican's playbook, which has the potential of working against us.

Still, it was heartening to see the turnout yesterday at the caucuses, which generally in this state at least has always been something less than spectacular. For those not in the know, until this year Washington State has utilized an open primary system, whereby anyone could vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. What most people probably didn't realize however, was that the results of the primaries were non-binding; each party still held its own separate caucuses from which delegates to the National party conventions were eventually selected. It was these delegates that actually determined which candidates in each party would receive support, and the fact that usually both the primary and the caucus results coincided was mere coincidence, and so far as the parties were concerned irrelevent.

So, because the Washington State Supreme Court under pressure from both major political parties threw out the primary system (and the Republicans of course with an incumbent executive won't be holding a Presidential Caucus this year), people had to attend the caucus if they wanted their vote to count for anything. Many voters in Washington have never participated in a caucus before, and so for most it was hopefully an educational experience.

The thing I've always liked about the caucus system is that it compells individuals to not only study the issues and candidates beforehand, but it also entails discussion about them as well. Participants don't just hunker down in the voting booth and make little circles on their ballots; they have to listen to other people explain why they're supporting a particular candidate, and in many cases try to convince some of those folks to vote for their choice in return. The caucus in effect transforms the process of selection from a private to a public engagement, turning it int a conversation as opposed to an internal monologue. Voters have to publically declare their intention to support a particular candidate, who must then garner at least 15% of the votes in a given precinct in order to qualify for delegatges. If they're shy of that threshhold after the first round of voting, then they're out of the running and any voters supporting them must either switch to a different candidate or declare themselves uncommitted.

So, the whole process can turn into a bit of a horse trade, as supporters of qualifying candidates try to convince others why they should throw in with their lot. It therefore forces voters to really study the issues and individuals so that they can make the most compelling argument in favor of their candidate. In short, people have to really educate themselves, and not just rely on vague impressions or gut feelings. Some can be compelled to change their votes, a few will stick with their candidate regardless of whether they qualify for delegates, and a few more will jump into the uncommitted pool, in the hopes of leveraging their ability to hold their commitment in reserve for further into the process. It's all very messy, loud and on the surface appears rather disorganized, but there is a method to the madness as it were, and frankly it's a whole lot more interesting and engaging that spending five minutes in a voting booth.

Needless to say, my precinct had a rather smallish turnout compared to the other three that shared caucus space at the Swedish Hall on lower Queen Anne yesterday, but the debate was no less impassioned. Of the 17 people who signed in, most were Kerry supporters (7), followed by Dean (5), two for Clark, one for Kucinich, and three undeclared. Since Clark and Kucinich were booted after the first round, the battle was on to try to pull their supporters into the Dean camp, however of the three Kerry's side took two with one going uncommited. So, of the five delegates allotted to our precinct to go to the District Caucus in May, the final count was three Kerry, one Dean and one uncommitted, which despite the small turnout, was still a pretty reasonable reflection of the State as a whole.

Regardless of the final results, however, literally everyone from our precinct caucus who stuck around for the actual proceedings (it was possible to sign in, make your declaration, then leave, which several people from our precinct evidentally did) was elected as either a delegate or alternate to go on to the District Caucus; so for the majority of folk their direct participation in the process will continue. That's another great thing about the system; it ain't over until it's over, and along the way you get a number of chances to keep trying to pull people into your camp.

So, I'll be going into the 36th District Caucus on the 1st of May as my precinct's Dean delegate. I just hope he's still around in a month and a-half to cast my vote for -- otherwise, I'm going to be the one getting all the attention from the horse-traders.

Posted byCOMTE on 10:17 PM

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