They wouldn’t put it this way, but state Democratic leaders adopted a massive vote suppression scheme Saturday.
They chose to pick their favorite 2016 presidential candidates exclusively through a series of caucuses attended by cadres of Democrats with flexible schedules and a lot of time to burn. Democrats with conflicts that prevent them from showing up are out of luck; they have no say in the nomination.
Caucuses have a place, albeit a shrinking one, in presidential politics. Ideally, they function like little New England town meetings in which citizens try to persuade each other, then pick the most popular candidates. Through a succession of gatherings, delegates committed to one candidate or another are chosen to attend the party’s national convention.
In Washington, both the Republicans and Democrats hold caucuses, but only the state Democrats have categorically refused to honor the results of presidential primaries. State Republicans have been poised to let a primary determine half of their convention delegates. With the state Democrats again choosing to ignore the returns, that primary may not happen.
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Ironically, it was Democrat reformers who led the nation’s shift toward primaries after 1968. A caucus-only delegate system is hard to reconcile with the traditions of the modern Democratic Party. The Republican voter ID laws condemned by Democrats may chip away at the margins of minority participation in elections – suppression on a retail scale. But requiring voters to show up and perhaps spend hours at a precinct meeting is suppression on a wholesale level.
The process leaves out all kinds of Democrats. A single mom juggling two jobs and three children may not be able to break free for the caucus. A shut-in with an amputated leg likely won’t show up. A low-income retiree without a car or easy access to public transportation won’t make it without a ride.
A waiter’s employer may not let her off for a day. Parents who can’t afford baby-sitters might be excluded. So might a soldier deployed in Afghanistan. This list could go on and on. Neophytes may fear they’ll look stupid in a room full of politically savvy strangers. Shy people may fear the room full of strangers, period.
In some cases, the party will allow a would-be participant to send a surrogate, but that’s not the same thing as attending in person. In contrast, a mail-in primary lets everyone through the door. Any excluded by caucuses could easily participate in delegate selection if the party honored primary ballots.
In the last presidential primary, in 2008, the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drew a staggering number of Democrats to that year’s caucuses – well over 240,000. But nearly 700,000 cast ballots for Democratic candidates in the primary, and the state Democrats ignored the results. They say national party rules prevent them from using primary results, but the national party would readily adjust the rules if the state party asked it to.
Dismissing hundreds of thousands of ballots is suppression on a scale reminiscent of Jim Crow – the days of racist poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements. Yet some Democratic leaders who find that kind of exclusion noxious beyond words are willing to exclude the votes of struggling people who can’t participate in their caucuses.
How hard would it be to let half the delegates be tied to the presidential primary results? The state Democrats’ hostility to the idea betrays the highest ideals of their own party.