Politics & Government

More Washington Democrats look to do away with caucuses after Clinton primary win

The political discourse was robust as forms were counted at Democratic precinct caucuses at Jason Lee Middle School on Saturday, March 26, 2016.
The political discourse was robust as forms were counted at Democratic precinct caucuses at Jason Lee Middle School on Saturday, March 26, 2016. The News Tribune

Hillary Clinton’s victory in Washington’s presidential primary on Tuesday is causing more Democrats to ask why they are ignoring those results.

Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said party officials received “a handful of emails” Wednesday morning questioning whether the state party’s use of caucuses to allocate delegates to presidential candidates truly represents the will of Washington voters.

Clinton lost the state’s March 26 caucuses in a landslide for Bernie Sanders that handed the Vermont senator 74 of the state’s 101 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

But the former secretary of state then turned around and won Tuesday’s nonbinding Democratic primary election, earning 53 percent of the vote compared with Sanders’ 47 percent.

Votes are still being counted in the all-mail election, but by Wednesday almost three times as many Democrats had voted in the primary as participated in Democrats’ March 26 precinct caucuses.

State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said Tuesday’s results highlighted how Washington Democrats’ system of holding both caucuses and primaries needs to go.

Awarding delegates to candidates based on primary results would be less confusing and expand the number of voters who could participate in the nomination process, he said.

“I just think caucuses have a romantic image and play a meaningful role in terms of activism and energy, but that a primary is more Democratic and reflective of the broader values of the population,” Carlyle said.

While voters can take part in the primary by simply dropping a ballot in the mail, participating in the caucuses requires voters to take time away from family or work to attend a meeting with their neighbors. The Democratic precinct caucuses where Sanders won his delegates lasted just a few hours, but the later legislative district caucuses that helped cement that victory took up to 12 hours. Afterward, local Democratic volunteers questioned whether a primary would be preferable.

“People can’t find a babysitter for a whole day, they can’t leave work for a whole day. They have family commitments, or their kids are in activities,” said Elaine Hansch, a Clinton supporter from Gig Harbor.

Because of those factors, Hansch said she thinks the primary results are more representative of what the majority of voters think and should therefore be used to allocate delegates in the presidential race.

“I think it does show that Hillary does have the greater support,” Hansch said of Tuesday’s results.

Others say the primary outcome only showed that many voters didn’t participate. Many Sanders supporters sat out Tuesday’s primary because they knew it was “a dog and pony show,” said Jennifer Chamberlin, a Bremerton resident and organizer of the grassroots group Kitsap Loves Bernie.

“Had it been a deciding factor for the delegates, we would have mobilized and been able to phone bank and engage voters to vote,” Chamberlin said.

Some supporters of Sanders, an independent who identifies as a Democratic socialist, also didn’t want to identify as a Republican or Democrat to participate in the primary, Chamberlin said. Voters had to check a party declaration box for their vote to count.

Still, Chamberlin said she would support using a primary to allocate the state’s delegates going forward, since she knows many people who were shut out of the caucus process by work or family commitments.

It would be a change welcomed by Republicans, who for the past year have criticized Democrats for not abandoning the caucus system in favor of using the primary to allocate delegates, as Republicans did for the 2016 election.

Susan Hutchison, chairman of the state Republican Party, issued a statement late Tuesday calling the Democrats’ caucus system “antiquated” and “out of step with the voters.”

On Wednesday, the state’s top election official urged both parties to use the presidential primary to allocate delegates in 2020. Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, also repeated her call for the Legislature to move the primary from May to March to heighten its importance in the presidential nomination process.

Raad, the Democratic party spokesman, said switching to a primary system is something Democratic party officials can consider leading up to the next presidential election.

The Washington State Democratic Central Committee, which consists of volunteers from counties and legislative districts throughout the state, will vote in late 2018 or early 2019 on whether to use a presidential primary or a caucus system, he said.

Raad he anticipates there will be ample debate about making changes.

“There certainly are some Democrats who want to move to the primary,” Raad said Wednesday. “We’ve heard their concerns, and this will certainly be a discussion in the run-up to the next presidential election.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1