After casting ballots, Democrats can attend precinct caucuses to help determine state’s remaining delegates in presidential race
You don’t have to vote twice in the Texas Democratic primary to make your vote count. But you can. Well, sort of.
The Texas Democratic Party has, since the 1970s, had in place a system that includes both a primary and precinct caucuses or conventions, according to Darlene Ewing, Dallas County Democratic Party chair.
Ewing admits that it can be a confusing situation but, she said, it hasn’t drawn that much attention in the past because Texas primary voters have rarely if ever had the opportunity to have such a significant impact on the national outcome.
"We’ve been doing things this way for years, and nobody ever cared. Now, everybody is all worked up about it," Ewing said. "Our phone lines have been burning up, every day. We have had more calls in the last 10 days than we had the whole previous year."
Ewing said most of the calls are from people worried that their vote in the primary won’t count unless they also participate in precinct caucuses, which isn’t true.
"The campaigns, both campaigns, are trying to convince their supporters to vote and to go to the precinct conventions. They want to impress on people the urgency of attending these precinct conventions, and it is freaking some people out. It’s a sound byte way of getting their supporters to show up."
The fact is, Ewing said, Democratic delegates from Texas are determined in two ways. About 75 percent of Texas’ 228 delegates to the party’s national convention will be determined in the primary. The remaining delegates will be determined through precinct caucuses.
The problem is, a lot of people never realized Texas still used the caucus system at all, and even among those who knew it existed, a lot don’t know how it works.
Ewing explained some of the basics this week:
The first must-know piece of information about the Texas caucus system is that only those who vote in the primary those who cast their ballot either in early voting or at their precinct polling place on March 4 can participate in the caucuses.
Once you have accomplished that, the next step is to show up at your polling location after the polls have closed that night. Ewing said it is important to stress that you have to go to the polling location for your precinct, not to an early voting location if you voted early.
The publicized start time for precinct caucuses is 7:15 p.m. But, Ewing said, the official start time is 15 minutes after polling has ended at that location.
"The law says that if someone is standing in line to vote at 7 p.m., the polls have to stay open until they have all voted. And the rules say that the precinct convention cannot start until 15 minutes after the polls close," she explained. "Turnout this year will be huge. So I expect there will be a lot of precinct conventions that don’t start until later."
Ewing said that precinct chairs would receive a roster from party officials listing everyone in that precinct who voted. But she also encouraged anyone wanting to participate in precinct caucuses to take their voter registration cards which will have been stamped at the polls as an extra bit of proof that they are eligible to participate. Some of those who voted early received a receipt, which also counts for caucus eligibility, she said.
When you arrive at the precinct caucuses, Ewing said, you sign in with your name and with the name of the candidate you are supporting. You can write down the name of any candidate on the ballot, or you can sign in as "uncommitted."
Then the precinct chair calls the meeting to order. If there is no precinct chair present, those attending elect a caucus chair. They also elect a secretary to take the minutes of the meeting.
Once that business is handled, the chair will check the sign-in sheet to determine what percentage of support each candidate has among those attending. That is how it is determined what percentage of that precinct’s delegates will support each candidate at the senatorial district conventions.
But, Ewing said, a candidate must get the support of at least 15 percent of those attending to earn delegates to the senatorial district convention.
"For example, say 20 people attend your precinct convention. Ten of them sign in to support Barack Obama, eight sign in to support Hillary Clinton and two sign in to support John Edwards," she said. "That gives Obama 50 percent, Clinton 40 percent and Edwards 10 percent. But since Edwards didn’t meet the 15 percent threshold, those who signed in for him can either leave or realign with one of the other candidates."
That’s where the caucusing comes in, with the supporters of the other two candidates working to convince the uncommitted conventioneers to align with them.
Once the percentage of delegates is determined, each group then meets to elect its delegates to the senatorial district convention, and those delegates are registered with the precinct chair.
Then those attending move on to phase two: resolutions. This is when anyone attending the precinct convention can introduce resolutions they would like to see added to the Democratic Party platform. The resolutions are debated, and a vote is taken. Those resolutions that are approved are then submitted to the senatorial district convention.
The next step is the senatorial district conventions, which will be March 29 at various locations. The process there is basically the same as at the precinct caucuses, Ewing said: sign in with your name and the name of the candidate you are supporting; determine percentage of delegates for the candidates; elect delegates; debate and vote on resolutions.
The total number of delegates each senatorial district gets is determined by the number of people in the district who voted for the Democratic candidate in the last Texas governor’s race. And while the number of delegates advancing to the state convention in support of a particular candidate is based on the percentage of attendees supporting that candidate at the convention, the actual delegates advancing to the state level are balanced out according to gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
In other words, if 50 percent of those attending support Obama, and 50 percent support Clinton, then half that district’s delegates to the state convention will support Obama and half will support Clinton. But, by party rules, the actual delegation to the state convention will be equally divided between men and women, and it will be manipulated to reflect the diversity of the district.
Whew. But wait there’s still the state party convention. And that’s where things can get really confusing.
Although the basic process is the same at the state convention, there is also more juggling that occurs to make sure that the number of delegates supporting each candidate at the national convention accurately reflects that candidate’s support in both the primary and caucuses.
On top of that, there are superdelegates, "who get to vote for anyone they want to vote for," Ewing said; pledged party officials who will be designated to a particular candidate before the national convention; and at-large delegates, who are often designated for a particular candidate in such a way that the state’s delegation to the national convention reflects not only the proper percentage of support for each candidate, but the diversity of the voters themselves.
"It is complicated. But it is all about fairness," Ewing said, explaining that the system was designed to give adequate weight to the popular vote while at the same time acknowledging the input of dedicated party activists the kind who are willing to go the extra mile to participate in the convention process.
"We have a proportional system. It’s not winner take all, which is something people have complained about with the Electoral College, where a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election," she said. "This is about fairness, and sometimes fairness is complicated."
Complicated though it may be, Ewing said, the convention system is an important part of the Democratic Party’s political process in Texas. And those who care about the outcome of the elections should consider participating.
"Any candidate could pick up 30 or 40 delegates through the caucus system, and that can be very significant in a race this tight," she said.
But she also warned that those participating should be aware of the commitments of time and money they could be making.
Precinct conventions will probably mean giving up three to four hours of your time on the evening of March 4.
Delegates to a senatorial district convention are committing themselves to a full day of work on March 29.
Those chosen as delegates to the state convention in June in Austin will have to devote about two days of their time and enough money to pay their own way. And those going on to the national convention are looking at a week’s stay in Denver in late August.
"You have to pay your own way to these conventions, and it can get expensive," Ewing said.
But it will also be worth it, she added.
"It is just overwhelming, the level of excitement in this race," Ewing said. "I can’t recall any time when Dallas County has been this excited about and involved in an election, and I have lived here since 1978.
"No matter what happens in the primary, this is making history. I truly believe we are going to elect either a woman or an African-American to the presidency of the United States in November, and that is way cool," she said. "We’re not going to have an old white guy in the Oval Office any more. We’re going to have something new. And I find that exciting."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 29, 2008.