Caucus chaos

On March 3, the night before this year’s Texas Democratic primary, a local group of Barack Obama supporters met in a Westside rental building at Commerce and Murry to plan for the caucus that would follow the primary. Amidst the strategizing and prep work, a politically savvy volunteer from California stepped up to put the situation in perspective.

“He basically said, ‘You know what, guys? No matter what happens tomorrow, we’re all in the Democratic Party and we need to be sure that we do this together,’” recalls Xochitl Gonzalez, an Obama campaign volunteer. “That really resonated for me because I tried to do that from the very beginning.”

Less than 24 hours later, much of that goodwill went out the window in a statewide caucus debacle characterized by confusion, disorganization, mutual suspicion, and allegations of gaming the system. Above all, the caucus, the second part of the little-understood “Texas Two-Step,” featured people lining up, signing in, and casting votes in numbers never seen in Texas or any other American caucus: an estimated one million participants from 8,700 precincts.

On a statewide level, the zeal of Obama’s backers carried him to a nine-delegate caucus win and allowed him to overturn Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory in the Lone Star State. But South Texas is Clinton country, and the local dominance of Clinton organizers has resulted in considerable resentment from San Antonio’s Obama contingent over the handling of both the caucus and the March 29 Senate District Conventions. The hostility they talk about mirrors the growing conflict we’re seeing between these campaigns on the national level.

“I hate to say it, but the Clinton people were very combative,” Gonzalez says. “They wanted to argue any point. Anything I would suggest, they would set up a barrier for.”

You sense that it pains Gonzalez to make that statement. She’s not a Hillary hater, by any stretch. She seriously considered supporting the former first lady and feels strongly that either Democratic candidate would be preferable to John McCain. (Clinton campaign officials did not respond to interview requests from the Current.)

Gonzalez says that when she arrived at her caucus site, no one was in charge. Gonzalez — a precinct captain for Obama — sought out the election judge and asked for a caucus packet to help answer any questions about caucus rules. When the caucus began at 8:30 p.m., she says she talked to Clinton’s supporters about the need to look organized and avoid petty arguments. After all, she argued, they didn’t want voters leaving in frustration.

“But they made it very difficult to do things. First of all, there were snide remarks about me having the packet,” she says.

“Being uninformed is the theme of this whole thing. When people don’t know what to do, it just leads to chaos. If I knew what to do, the Clinton people were going to jump on me. And vice versa: I think it caused some people in our camp to be snooty back with them. There was a point where I had to say, ‘You know, you need to stop being rude right now,’ or, ‘Don’t be condescending.’”

One bitter point of contention involved the verification process. Each participant needed to provide photo identification and a stamped voter card, proving that they’d cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. Attempting to follow the guidelines in the packet, Gonzalez pointed out that anyone in line without a stamped card needed to be marked “Provisional.” If the person in question supported Clinton, Gonzalez says she’d find herself bombarded with complaints from Clinton volunteers.

“By the time we were counting the signatures, we were arguing over every little thing, like how we were going to do the math.”

Lisa Jasinski, a New Yorker who moved to San Antonio last year, similarly paid a price for her attempts to bring clarity to the chaos. Jasinski caucused at Lamar Elementary School and immediately fretted when she noticed that caucus-participant information was being kept on “legal-sized sheets of paper less official than a Girl Scout cookie sign-up sheet.”

Jasinski volunteered to help out by verifying the eligibility of voters as they entered the caucus room. When one voter said they didn’t have their driver’s license and argued that it was unconstitutional for Jasinski to ask to see it, she looked for advice. One volunteer told her that photo IDs were essential for caucus participation, while another told her that she couldn’t check for licenses. “So I let them sign up,” says Jasinski, a certification assessment and communication specialist at Trinity University. “It’s really terrible, but it was sort of mob rule.”

That mob-rule mentality simply engulfed the Texas caucus process. By comparison, the Iowa caucus is routinely held up as a model of democracy, with images of volunteers bringing home-baked cookies for their teams and organizers running the gatherings with civility. But even with record-breaking turnouts at this year’s Iowa caucus, that state only had to deal with an estimated 239,000 caucus participants. Texas had to accommodate four times as many people, with infinitely less caucus experience and expertise to fall back on.

“There were a few instances of people gaming the system, but the majority of the problems came from confusion because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” says Madeleine Dewar, executive director of the Bexar County Democratic Party. “Both of the candidates had training, but different people did the training, and some were very good and some were very bad.”

The caucus system requires attendees to wait until everyone has signed in before joining their candidates’ supporters in the caucus room and voting for the candidate they prefer. But because so few people understood the process, manipulating the results was fairly easy. Jasinski says she heard from a fellow Obama supporter that Clinton volunteers at Lamar Elementary began prematurely urging Obama supporters to leave as soon as they signed in, before they could register their votes. Unconfirmed rumors also began to spread among Obama volunteers that the Clinton people continued signing up people after that part of the process had ended.

Because Clinton backers generally outnumbered the Obama brigade at SA caucuses, in most cases they selected their own people to serve as precinct chairs and secretaries. The chairs made all the key procedural decisions and the secretaries had the responsibility of turning in their precinct’s delegate list to the Democratic Party’s county organization.

Gonzalez forgot to give her list of Obama delegates to her precinct’s secretary. She says the permanent chair called her the next day asking for the list and she sent it in on Thursday, March 6. Three weeks later, however, at the Senate District Convention, she found that the Obama delegates and alternates picked on March 4 were not on the list. She’s not sure if the secretary failed to submit the list or county reps forgot to enter the names, but she came away deeply frustrated.

Jasinski knew she was in trouble when the secretary at her caucus precinct asked, after she’d been elected, “What do I do?” Her precinct elected six delegates for Clinton and four for Obama, but Jasinski says she heard from a political activist in her neighborhood that the county never received the forms.

Dewar concedes that several precincts failed to turn in caucus packages, attributing at least some of the omissions to small or non-existent turnouts at a some sites.

The backbiting seen at the March 4 caucuses only intensified with three weeks to gear up for the Senate District Conventions, where delegates were chosen for the party’s state convention. Again, turnout proved to be overwhelming, with the four local Senate Districts drawing an estimated 10,000 people. Karen Dampeer, an Obama delegate to the Senate District Convention, says that in the weeks leading up to the convention, several delegates received anonymous — and erroneous — phone calls saying that the convention had been canceled.

Dampeer says she arrived at the convention site at 7:30 a.m. and waited more than two hours to get registered. When her precinct delegates and alternates got together, they asked the temporary precinct chair for instructions. “He told us, ‘You’re Obama supporters. You have to find your own person.’ And she continued to just meet with the
Clinton people.”

Dampeer says that shortly before 2 p.m., the precinct chair demanded an immediate vote. Her precinct was allotted one delegate and one alternate to the state convention. Along the way, Clinton supporters began to realize that if they outnumbered Obama supporters by a big margin, they could split their votes between two Clinton backers and shut Obama out of an alternate to the state convention. Dampeer says when one man twice mistakenly voted for the wrong person, his Clinton allies urged him to put his hand down and allowed him to change his vote. Dewar says such actions, though not uncommon, constitute a violation of party-convention procedure.

Dampeer also argues that the first vote was nothing more than a bait-and-switch tactic. She says Clinton supporters called for another vote several hours later, by which point many Obama supporters had left.

“The Clintons were much more organized,” she says. “There were more first-time voters who were Obama supporters. That’s probably why they were victimized more.”

Perhaps because the caucus system worked so well for Obama at the statewide level, campaign reps don’t seem too eager to investigate local irregularities. “We’ve been told from the top, from the very beginning, to play by the rules. We recognize that in the end, no matter what, we’re going to have to come together with the Clinton folks. Because of that, we’ve tried not to challenge credentials and things like that,” says Ken Flippin, director of Texans for Obama.

Unless the party makes the unlikely decision to scrap its caucus system, it’s unlikely that its problems will be solved anytime soon. A common wish expressed by participants is for each precinct to have an impartial,
knowledgeable person to bring order to the caucuses. It’s a nice idea, but hardly feasible.

“We have 622 precincts and 575 had conventions. I don’t know 575 people who are non-partisans who know what’s going on who could do it,” Dewar says. “Would I want to change `the caucus system`? You bet. Would I want to get rid of it? No way.” •

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