Grassroots gatherings of passionate people will always have a treasured place in American civic life. But Washington state Democrats made the right decision Saturday by exchanging the uncertainty of neighborhood caucuses for the sanctity of private ballots when voters help pick their party’s presidential candidate next year.
Though it may pain them to emulate what state Republicans did before the last presidential election, Democrats had little choice but to change a nominating process that tied their party in knots in 2016 — a strange twist in a strange year that saw Donald Trump sent to the White House.
Democratic caucuses around the state pledged 74 of 101 national convention delegates to Bernie Sanders in 2016, despite a primary in which 53 percent of Democratic voters went for Hillary Clinton. Many Democrats felt betrayed, disenfranchised and confused.
Now, thanks to the combination of a unified state presidential primary and an earlier voting date — a new law will move it from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March — Washingtonians will have a real role in separating the contenders from the pretenders.
It’s about time.
For proof that caucuses have crossed the line from time-honored to anachronistic, consider what took place in a hot, crowded auditorium in Tacoma two years ago.
The 27th Legislative District caucus at Jason Lee Middle School illustrated what’s wrong with caucuses, writ large, as it dragged past 10 p.m. with a conspicuous lack of diversity.
“Not many people have the privilege of giving up more than 12 hours of their time to support a candidate for president,” Tacoma Democrat and attorney Mike Moceri wrote in a TNT op-ed afterward. “Many onlookers decried the lack of people of color at the caucus, the lack of young people, the lack of disabled people and the lack of the elderly. Most of the attendees were white and middle-aged.”
The local caucus wasn’t unique; it was merely an outsize example of what happened around Washington on that Saturday in April 2016. Democrats gathered in schools, libraries and meeting halls for six or more hours, debating the merits of Sanders vs. Clinton amid reports that Bernie backers behaved like bullies.
Several party stalwarts acknowledged the format is unfavorable for ordinary people with weekend jobs, child-care issues and family commitments. Not surprisingly, activists dominated caucus action.
The next month, more than three times as many Democrats participated in the presidential primary — 802,745 voters, compared to 230,000 in the caucuses. But the party followed its usual practice, ignoring what rank-and-file party members had communicated through Washington’s vote-by-mail system. It’s a practice that devalues ballots that are cast privately after personal deliberation, free from peer pressure and bullying.
We’re glad that good sense prevailed at Saturday’s meeting of the state party’s central committee in Pasco, and that all delegates will be apportioned according to presidential primary results next year, barring an unlikely veto by the Democratic National Committee.
In a shrewd concession to grassroots purists and political insiders, caucus meetings still will be used to pick who goes to the July 2020 national convention in Milwaukee. This hybrid process is more workable than the mishmash that has confused Washingtonians in past presidential election years.
Heading toward 2020, the crop of Democratic candidates aiming to unseat Trump is a mile wide; polarization is inevitable while Sanders maintains a commanding presence in the field, and even if he doesn’t.
But honoring the will of the majority expressed by presidential primary will go a long way toward relieving friction inside the Democratic party and respecting democratic principles in general.