If this is grassroots politics, it's time to xeriscape

This morning I said I wasn’t going to caucus. I said that I couldn’t manage it with two kids, and still couldn’t decide whether Obama or Clinton was the better choice. This evening, with much help from one of our commenters (Djerred) and his wife, who took one of my kids off my hands for the evening even as they were caucusing too, I was able to caucus myself. I realized on the way home that, if I didn’t at least try, if I didn’t at least give the Obama and Clinton supporters a chance to plead their case, I’d kick myself tomorrow.

Caucusing tonight was the worst voting experience I’ve ever had, and I may never caucus again because of it.

I think that the single biggest problem is that the Broomfield County Democrats were totally unprepared for the number of caucus-goers they had. They had prepared for 800-1000 attendees and had at least 2000 attendees. Because of this, their choice of a local high school cafeteria was woefully insufficient – so bad that the fire marshal forced them to expand outside the cafeteria. And the sheer number of vehicles, even with carpooling, swamped the parking lot and created a backup at least a mile long along the main access road to the high school.

It took me an hour to get to the caucus site when, under normal driving conditions, it would be about at 15 minute drive.

My precinct had 65 people show up, but the cafeteria tables we’d had allotted to us sat between 36 and 48 (I didn’t get a good enough look to be more accurate), meaning that we had people sitting on a cinderblock wall behind me and standing around trying not to be in the way. Because of the overwhelming number of people, the caucus got started 45 minutes late – which itself was fine with me, because if they’d started on time, I would have been locked out of the caucus because of traffic. But because they started late, and because there was so many more people, there was less time to actually caucus, and it was harder to hear.

I was one of only three uncommitted voters from my precinct. I was also the last uncommitted voter after the second, and last, straw poll. Technically that made me a target, and that was what I wanted. I wanted to hear the two candidate’s supporters debate their relative merits. I wanted to be convinced that one or the other would be the better president. But I couldn’t hear the Obama supporters when they made their points, and I couldn’t hear the Clinton supporters when they made theirs. And there simply wasn’t enough time during the caucus for me to learn something new about either candidate that would bend me to their side.

My precinct ultimately had too few uncommitted voters to send even a single uncommitted delegate to any of the various conventions (county, state, and national). If it had, I would not have raised my hand to vote for one of the candidates like I ultimately did, because it wasn’t the candidates’ positions that ultimately bent my mind just enough, but rather a comparison between the approaches of two of my fellow voters’ rationales for voting for either Obama or Clinton. It ultimately came down to the fact that the precinct captain for Obama was working as precinct captain for the first time since Bobby, and the precinct captain for Clinton couldn’t say much beyond “Hillary’s not really like she’s portrayed in the media.” So I raised my hand – VERY reluctantly – with the Obama crowd.

Unfortunately, before I had a chance to vote on the other candidates, my son reached the end of his itty-bitty rope, and I had to collect my kids and leave. So I didn’t get a chance to vote on Jared Polis vs. Joan Fitz-Gerald for Congressional District 2, nor did I get a chance to vote on Udall for Senate against someone I’d never heard of and was a single-issue candidate. As I walked out with my children, I heard the empowered caucus official remind everyone to get their vote down on “Form 1” or else it wouldn’t be counted. After all that, I’d forgotten to register my vote on the very form where it needed to be registered in order to be official, and with two tired kids already dressed up in their heavy winter coats, I couldn’t turn around and correct my, and my precinct captain’s, oversight. Instead I went home even more disappointed and put my kids to bed.

A woman in my precinct was all excited for the caucus. “This is grassroots politics at its best,” she said, and she brought both of her teenage children with her to experience it. If this is the best that it gets, if this truly is grassroots politics, then I can’t help but think that it’s time to tear up the grass and replace it with xeriscaping. I voted for Obama not because I really wanted to, not because I believe he’s the best candidate, but because I didn’t want my vote to be ignored. And yet, if I had stuck to my “uncommitted” vote, the distribution of delegates from my precinct would have been exactly the same as if I had voted with Obama. And ultimately, because the caucus was so overwhelmed with voters and so disorganized, my vote still ultimately didn’t matter anyway.

When I was talking about my experience with my wife (who had to work and wasn’t able to caucus), she suggested that I felt cheated. And she’s right. I feel like the “grassroots participation” and “face-to-face… meaningful discourse” mentioned by Frank Venturo in my earlier post were completely missing from my caucus experience. I feel like the marketplace of ideas was flooded with a cacophony of voices, making it impossible for the cream to rise and for the crap to sink. And I feel like both candidates’ most outspoken supporters were in it for themselves, not for the grassroots process they supposedly supported.

But I also feel like I’ve somehow betrayed some nebulous mythological “democracy” by being fundamentally disgusted with my own caucus. I’ve always considered myself a strong believer in voting as a civic duty, far more important than a mere right, and yet I came out of the caucus wondering if I’d ever dream about considering caucusing again. This example of “grassroots politics at its best” was such a turn off for me that, if it had been caucuses instead of primaries way back in 1992 when I voted in my first Presidential election, I might have abandoned voting altogether like so many others of my generation have.

I understand that democracy is sometimes messy, sometimes ugly, and that in some elections there’s more voter interest than in others. But even if that’s the explanation for my disappointment tonight, it still doesn’t excuse the problems that occurred. And I hope that, in four more years, I’ll have moved beyond my feelings tonight. I don’t know. I suppose I’ll find out in four more years.

Who knows – maybe I’ll be the one organizing it all next time. At least then I’d have no-one to blame for a screw up but myself.

Many thanks to Djerrid and his wife/kids – without their help, I couldn’t have made it to the caucus at all with the two kids. I owe you both more than you realize, and I hope to figure out some way to pay you back for all your help tonight.

12 replies »

  1. Brian, this is a great diary about your experiences. It’s too bad that it was not a positive experience. Before you go and put too much heat on the organizers, take some perspective. In 2006, the caucuses were attended by 200 people. In 2004, the caucuses were attended by about 450. Estimates I’ve seen in Broomfield, said over 2000 showed up form the Dem caucuse and maybe 800 at the Republican.

    It is a missed opportunity to impress that many people that the local organization will never get back however, with planning done months in advance, no one would have estimated the need for that much space.

    Democracy isn’t a one night stand; it’s a marriage. The satisfaction you missed last night will be there if this is important to you and stay involved. I know the leaders in Broomfield well and you have never met a more dedicated or passionate bunch. I hope you stick with it but either way, I for one am so proud of Broomfield for showing up even for one night.

  2. SWK – Thanks for commenting. If you have contacts within the Broomfield Dems, I’d love to get some on-the-record comments from them that I can run here about what went wrong and what went right. It would be a good counterpoint to my own disappointing experience.

    Last night, I wasn’t even sure that I was glad I’d gone caucusing. I was thinking that my time would have been better spent with the kids in bed, watching TV or blogging instead. With a (reasonably) good night’s sleep, I’m glad that I went, as bad as it was for me. I don’t regret going.

    I think that one single change might have altered my perceptions of the caucus – splitting precincts up to different classrooms, instead of putting everyone in the cafeteria.

  3. The Chair’s name is Kevin Kreeger. Good guy. He has a day job and young kids like you. It looks like you ought to go through this email address for comments for attribution: publicity@broomfielddems.org but if you don’t hear back use chair@broomfielddems.org.

    No doubt there’s room for improvement in the planning but I’m glad the morning light has brought a more positive memory for you.

  4. As one of those urging you to come caucus, I’m sorry it was such a rough night. Since I know you are a concerned and informed citizen, I thought it would be very sad if you could not give your input. As it turned out, because of how the caucus was run, your voice could (literally) not be heard anyway. I definitely agree it should have been split into classrooms with perhaps 2-3 precincts per classroom and an official from the party for each classroom or two.

    I was the chairperson of our much smaller precinct – 18 of us showed up – which I was able to handle with the help of my wife who was doing a good job of corralling the three kids and a competent Secretary who made sure everything was filled out correctly. If there were 40+ people there in that crowed room, I would not have been able to handle it. But with less than 20 everyone was able to have their say (even though they had to shout it at times) and there actually was some good dialog. I think these debates were more helpful for learning about the local candidates where I heard stories of personal interactions with them. In the end the presidential preference delegates ended up being split evenly in our precinct with votes going 2 to 1 for Obama in the state. I volunteered to be one of the county delegates so we’ll see how well run their convention is in March.

  5. Hi Brian–first off, no problem. I’m glad we could help with the kids.

    Second, as I left (with my two kids), the Head Guy in Charge (don’t know his name, but he was the one talking on the mike last night) stopped me. He apologized for all the confusion, thanked me for coming out, and took the bright side of “It’s wonderful to have so many people wanting to be involved.” As much as I thought the caucus last night was horribly overwhelmed, I think it was just so far beyond their expectations that I’m willing to forgive it. This time.

    I went in as an Obama supporter, and came out as an Obama supporter, so in general I was happy with the outcome. I was not, however, thrilled with the process. To me, the idea that caucuses almost deliberately exclude anyone who has a night job, or is out of town that week, or can’t get someone to watch their kids…that’s wrong. Heck, I left work a good hour and a half early in order to pick up the kids, get home, and get dinner before it was time to leave again–if I didn’t have a job that allowed that, I would have been left out too. On top of that, my 7-year old, who was incredibly excited about the process, came out saying that it was “boring”–whereas, in a vote, I can explain the whole process, bring her in, and she can “help”. What kind of voter will she be in 11 years?

  6. I am sorry for your experience! To be honest (you might not believe this), we had one of the best ran caucuses in the state. There was no one that predicted the turnout that happened in the Democratic Party last night.

    The reason it was held at Legacy , was because that should have been WAY more space than we could ever need. And having everyone together means that we can help people through a somewhat complex process.

    But this year we obviously didn’t have enough space.

    We knew there was extra excitement this year, so back when we started organizing we planned for 2-3 times the normal number of attendees. As we got closer and the excitement seemed to be growing, we increased it to 4-5 times the MAX attendees we have ever seen. Then increased it again to 6-7 times to be safe.

    There ended up being about TEN times the number of people that normally show up. It was an AMAZING turnout.

    But we had wanted to do so much more. We put a huge amount of time into planning it. We had specially trained people with yellow armbands that were going to constantly circulate throughout tables to help people. We had wi-fi set up and were going to go around with computers. We had an agenda to move everyone along on. And much more.

    But there were just so many people, and it was so crowded that much of that couldn’t happen.

    We did what we could. Everyone in line got in. Elderly and handicapped were accommodated. Everyone voted. It was all recorded. So it worked, but we wish we could have done more.

    In some counties (NOT Broomfield) people had to caucus outside. In some places they did not have the step by step instructions we had (or they were not as good) and it was chaos.

    I am sorry it was not better. Like all counties, we planned for many times what we have seen in the past and it still exceeded that.


  7. Kevin – thank you for taking the time to come and comment!

    If voters had to caucus outdoors or didn’t even have any guidance for how to caucus, you’re right, you had one of the better run caucuses. Which, given my experience, is downright scary. If I’d shown up to find that I would have had to caucus outside (my car said it was 17 degrees F when I got out of it with my kids), I wouldn’t have even been able to caucus, and there would be no question about whether I’d do this again in 2 or 4 years – I wouldn’t. Plain and simple.

    I’m thankful that I didn’t have to caucus outside. I wasn’t thankful for that, but with the perspective you’ve offered, I am now.

    I hope you and the rest of the Broomfield Dems make an opportunity soon to sit down and write up a list of what went right, what went wrong, and brainstorm how to make ti better next time. Now’s the best time for that, while it’s still fresh in your minds.

    Thank you for doing everything you could to make caucusing as smooth as possible – I really don’t want to imagine how bad it could have been if you hadn’t planned as much as you did. And again, thanks for commenting.

  8. Another thing that is important to note: The people who organized and ran the caucus were volunteers. Volunteers who gave up their time, resources and energy, for free, to make the caucus happen. It was a small group of people who handled a huge task, and they did a very good job given the circumstances. Maybe you’ll consider helping out next time!

  9. So i’m way out of the loop on this comment thread, but i’d like to say that the thread itself is the best representation of democracy: people actually talking to each other.

  10. I am shocked and unhappy with what I am reading! A contributer named Robin said she will forgive “THIS time.” What are you talking about??

    This is not an event organized by the local government. No one is paid to do this. The people who organized this event stepped up and VOLUNTEERED. Someone had to do it…. and a bunch of people did.

    If they had not stepped up, IT WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED AT ALL.

    You are saying that as you stayed out of it, and counted on others to step up to organize a HUGE and complicated event, with rules, laws, and logistics, that you are not happy they didn;t do MORE?

    I talked to the organizers. They all work and have families! They met in the evening and on weekends! They called and e-mailed millions of times to get this done.

    They got paid NOTHING. Broomfield would not of even had a caucus if they didn’t all do this.

    The turnout accross the state was record breaking and none of the counties expected that many people and none could accomodate like they wanted. But you are expecting our volunteers to somehow know exactly how many to expect and run this thing as if it were professionally planned??

    I am SORRY for the negative tone of my comments. I apologize to the person who maintains this blog….but VERY FEW things bug me more than hearing people who do nothing….let others take on all the work…and them BLAME them for not doing more!

    Broomfield used to have almost NO ONE participating in the Democratic Party. I go to party meetings now in a very large and full room. I see people volunteering. I see hundreds upon hundreds caucusing. I see strong Democratic candidates running out of Broomfield and I see party organizers doing a GREAT job of supporting them.

    I could NOT be more PROUD of our party, or the volunteers running it!