If 1,500 people got locked out of the polls in a normal American election, citizens would be howling about Putinesque conspiracies and invoking the specter of Jim Crow and the literacy tests of yore. The U.S. Justice Department might even send in a SWAT team.
Yet 1,500 Republican voters got locked out of the party’s presidential nominating caucuses in the Tri-Cities on Saturday, and all that came of it was some griping.
One reason is obvious: There was no foul play. Republican organizers simply ran out of space in the Three Rivers Convention Center, which they’d rented for the occasion. Nine hundred had come to the 2008 caucuses; the party planned for 2,000 this time – but 3,000 or so actually showed up Saturday morning.
Another factor, less obvious: There’s no general expectation of caucus-going. The vast majority of Republicans and Democrats don’t go to them. Most voters probably don’t know what they are, exactly. A cynic might even say that nominating caucuses are all about exclusion in the first place.
Ordinary folks have routinely been locked out of the parties’ caucuses, figuratively, every four years.
These meetings in theory are open to everyone. They’re generally held in community halls, schools and other neighborhood settings. You show up, stick up for your favorite candidate and maybe get yourself elected as one of many delegates to a county convention. The local caucuses set off a convoluted hierarchy of further meetings that ends with state delegates voting at the national conventions.
Who goes? Highly motivated party regulars. Officials. Campaign workers. Newcomers enthralled by one of the candidates. People who have time on their hands.
Who doesn’t go? People who have to work Saturdays. Moms without baby-sitters. Soldiers in Afghanistan. Shy souls who are intimidated by political arguments. And on and on.
There are tens of thousands of the former, hundreds of thousands of the latter. Party leaders, particularly Democrats, have been just fine with perpetuating the caucuses and keeping the decisions in the hands of the insiders.
Although Washingtonians voted to adopt a presidential primary in this state in 1989, Democratic Party leaders have never treated it as more than a beauty contest: They’ve always exclusively used caucuses to determine which presidential candidates to back.
Republicans have done better: They’ve allocated as many as half of their national convention votes according to the voters’ preferences. But no one raised much of a stink when the Legislature canceled this year’s presidential primary. The cancellation was a money-saving move, but it wouldn’t have happened if the primary had real partisan support.
In 2016, we hope, the vast majority of Republican and Democratic voters won’t get locked out again.