Saturday, January 5, 2008

Reliving Precinct 22

The Harding Middle School north of downtown Des Moines looks like one of those schools built in the 50's that has never been fixed up since.

At 5:45, a full hour and fifteen minutes before the caucus here would begin (the earliest I've ever shown up for an event, for the record), only nine people filled the lunchroom. Of the nine, two were Obama supporters, one woman was setting up her Richardson table, and the other six were volunteers helping to set up and run the caucus.

As voters began to file into the room it was fascinating to observe just how easy it was for people to register to vote. On the spot in less than one minute, a voter could register to caucus by simply providing a form of identification and having their name matched with a list of residents living within the precinct. When one voter showed up without a proof of residence or form of identification he simply walked the block and a half home and picked up his most recent telephone bill and was allowed to caucus.

One of the caucus organizers I spoke with said that precinct 22 only covered a strip of about fifteen to twenty square blocks surrounding the school. Because the caucuses are conducted within small local communities, the atmosphere inside the voting places is friendly. The supporters I saw gathered for Obama, Clinton, and Edwards recognized each other, and two families at the Edwards table said they attended many campaign events over the past few months and decided to support Edwards together. Hearing that made me wonder why the candidates spent a combined $200+ in television advertisements for every caucus-goer this year; it's nice to be reminded that minds are still made up by observation, consideration, and discussion.

As the time neared the 7:00 PM cutoff for arriving to participate in the caucus, a number of families with children began arriving. Of all the preference groups, the Edwards camp had the highest number of young observers—two four-year-olds and two infants.

The first order of business after 7:00 was to select a caucus chair and secretary. The chair of caucus here four years ago read the procedure for selecting these two positions, and, when a younger man rose to announce his attention of running to be the new chair, the decision was put to a vote. With a simple show of hands the younger man was elected caucus chair. He was passed the caucus instructions booklet by the former chair and took over immediately. The same process occurred for selecting the caucus secretary, but this time the incumbent secretary, a short woman with a loud voice who was always encouraging the crowd with pro-Democratic Party slogans, beat out a younger Kucinich supporter.

The caucus chair surveyed the room—which to the best of my judgment looked to be split pretty evenly between Obama and Clinton supporters—and announced in which corners each of the candidates were being represented. Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, and Kucinich each had supporters. Mike Gravel and Chris Dodd had no supporters and were quickly scratched off the caucus chair's list of candidates.

Once everyone had a clear idea of where the candidates' sides were, they were told by the chair to assemble in their preference groups and determine which candidates would be viable. Chairs were pushed together and people stood together behind signs supporting their candidate of choice. The caucus volunteers ran through the list of voters present and the chair announced that 111 voters were in the room and that a candidate would need seventeen supporters to be counted as viable and have their results tallied.

At the news the Richardson group near me counted up quickly, only to discover they only numbered fifteen in total. The Richardson precinct captain, whom I had spoken with earlier and had brought with her to the caucus papers with all of Bill Richardson's positions on key issues, immediately approached two uncommitted voters in the center of the room. As she did so one Kucinich supporter and one Biden supporter joined with the Richardson group; it was no longer necessary for the Richardson precinct captain to fight for her candidate's viability by convincing the undecided voters.

Representatives from each of the campaigns approached a table of about five uncommitted voters. Of the five, all but one, who chose to abstain from voting, moved to the Obama corner. During the process of convincing the uncommitted, two members of the Richardson group quietly slipped out and joined the Obama group as well.

Five minutes later, when the caucus chair counted the Richardson group, their numbers surprisingly tallied to only 15, short of the viability cutoff. When this number was announced to the room, two Edwards supporters left their group to make Richardson viable and give him one of the precinct's four delegates.

The caucus chair asked the precinct captains from all four candidate groups to count up their supporters and report the number to him. As they gathered around him, the chair wrote the numbers on an official caucus results reporting slip while the secretary entered the reported numbers into a caucus calculating program distributed by the Obama campaign. All four precinct captains signed off on the results and the caucus chair quickly phoned in the numbers to the state caucus committee. Within minutes those numbers would be added to the familiar vote tracking tallies that scroll at the bottom of cable news networks' broadcasts; precinct 22 divided its delegates equally among Obama, Clinton, Richardson, and Edwards.

The whole process was quick, well-organized, and altogether painless. Why? Because caucusing is more than just a process that is drearily followed here in Iowa, it's a part of being an Iowan. Even though caucus turnout has been poor in recent years, those who attend know how the process works down to the dime.

Skeptical initially about how often the voters at precinct 22 had caucused in the past I asked an elderly woman if this was her first caucus or not.

She began her answer: "No, I've only been caucusing since the War ended..."

She meant World War II.

This is the Iowan's baby, the caucus. You've got to see it to believe it.

(all photos: © 2008 by Luke N. Vargas. All Rights Reserved.)

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