Lemon: Colorado caucus is complicated, but it works
Vail CO, Colorado
“So fewer than 10 percent of the registered voters get to choose who the candidates for president will be?” My English friend and I regularly have this debate on the incredibly long process we call our election cycle. “That still must be more democratic than 646 people electing your Prime Minister,” I retort. “No, but seriously,” she replies, “you must admit that it is incredibly confusing with caucuses, primaries, assemblies, conventions, primaries, and then something called a general election.”
“Ah, but you have general elections, bi-elections, snap elections, constituencies, and no one knows how long you will be represented as a vote of no confidence could turn the whole Parliament out on its ear.”
Look, a caucus (a funny word sounding more like something that you do to clear your throat) is probably the most important political event in the United States and very few even know or care to attend. It is the one time that the political system must listen to the people. Caucus (some say that caucus originates from the Native American Algonquin word meaning “counsel” – cau-cau-a-su — and was adopted by the Democratic Party in New York at Tammany Hall, while others claim it originates from the Latin meaning “drinking vessel” ” both meanings are probably apropos) attendees decide who gets to run for office, and who doesn’t. If you do not like the candidates in the general election and you did not participate in the caucus, you failed to have your voice heard.
“But what about the independents? Is their opinion not important?” My friend just will not let up. Technically, independent candidates can run for office. If they get enough signatures of eligible electors they can get their name on the ballot in any state. Or, if there is a particularly interesting contest in one of the parties, the independents can register as Republican or Democrat two months before the caucus, cast their ballots then re-register as independent. It is a little late for independents to vote tomorrow, however.
She presses on, “Right, you have your caucus, then you have an assembly, then another assembly, some places have had a primary already, but then there is another primary ” (shouldn’t that be called a secondary?) and then finally there is a general election? You must be exhausted with all this political stuff, when do the representatives have time to actually attend the affairs of the country?”
Well, each state has the right to set the rules on the presidential process ” either a presidential primary or a caucus. In Colorado we believe that a caucus is more representative ” each precinct (the smallest civil division in the United States) holds a meeting and reports to the county who reports to the state. In each precinct, neighbors registered as voters as either Republican or Democrat meet to select their delegates to the assembly, and they give their preference on presidential candidates by a vote. In Eagle, we have 30 precincts. The preference polls for president are non-binding on the delegates, as the actual delegates attending the party conventions will be selected in April or May. But Colorado chose to move its caucus date to Feb. 5, so the preference of the voters could be expressed early.
In a presidential primary a statewide vote is taken, still restricted in most states to registered Republicans or Democrats, and this process can be influenced by the name recognition of the candidate or the amount of money they can spend in the particular state.
The caucus is a very small meeting of a relatively few neighbors where opinions can be expressed, support for a particular candidate can be voiced, and concerns directed to the county party and eventually to the state party. It is a social time, a chance to catch up with neighbors, (hence the “drinking vessel” part of the meaning) and a time to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our representatives or the candidates.
“But this binding, non-binding thing ” who decides, and how do the states allocate the delegates for each candidate?” Well, that is complicated as well. Each state has the right to set the rules, and each state Republican or Democratic party committee can also set the rules.
As a general rule, most of the Republican primaries or caucuses are a winner take-all system, while the Democrats allocate their delegates on the basis of proportional votes within each Congressional District. The final decision comes down to the national conventions.
“Say what? And what is this about the electoral college?” Please, another day another time. Just vote.
Heather Lemon of Eagle-Vail writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.