My name is Walt Stone.
And I ran a precinct level caucus last night in Far West Harris County.
And this is my tale.
By now, you may have heard Texas Democrats came out in massive numbers for the primary last night. I had only an idea from the folding table I was the clerk at yesterday. I didn’t start out as an assigned volunteer. I did email my request to volunteer in my area to the head of the Senate District 7 Democrats here in Harris County, and immediately got requests to aid polls… 350 miles away in Tarrant County.
So I knew I should show up somewhere and what better place than my own voting location. Except… where was it located?
I knew that my precinct was being combined with another precinct, and the voting booth was miles away, in downtown Old Katy. I put up a small sign at the normal voting area for our precinct, being used by the Republican primary. The Repub precinct chair was helpful and did point people in our direction, even making out another sign. (It’s hell on the process when the voter stops in mid vote to declare he/she is at the wrong primary… reversal of paperwork, and all)
It turns out there was another precinct that was moved to vote in the location in Katy Council Chambers as well . Just in case someone’s searching for precincts in Google, I’ll list them:
Precinct 603, Harris County (mine)
Precinct 720, Harris County
Precinct 639, Harris County
The election judge was the precinct chair(?) for the last precinct, 639, and was a huge help yesterday. So thanks David F. (don’t have the spelling of his last name, sorry)
I showed up a little before 7AM, but could not find the open door to go vote, and went to yet another place we had been combined with in previous Democratic primaries. I was directed back to the right spot and by then voting had begun, and the doors were open. There wasn’t a huge amount of VOTE HERE!” signage outside, but trust me, people ended up finding us just fine…
Problem was, the Election Judge didn’t have the allocation to put me on the payroll, and so I stood around trying not to get in the way. There would be an opening for me to help at 9:30AM, and I could volunteer at that point. I took a short break, drove home got two South Beach Diet bars and came back at 9:30AM.
It would be the last break I would have until 10:45PM.
I kind of blew off a break opportunity around 1:30PM, because I thought I could get some time before everyone got off work at 4 or so. I didn’t count on the school letting out around 3PM. People started filing in large numbers around 3-3:30, and voters — just… kept… on… coming… You know how you lose track of time when you’re busy? Three hours went by for me in just a flash. I had the “A-L” group, greeting, verifying ID, assigning a booth ticket tag, and Irene next to me would write their names down, noting if they came without their voters card. We had very few issues with sketchy ID. We had a few who were not on the rolls, but were definitely registered. A phonecall in to the voting gods would confirm or deny that person’s right to vote, and we had a few of those, and we let those people vote.
Early on in the day, I would cheerfully suggest that “should you wish to participate in the caucus process, return tonight around 7:15 and after the voting is finished, we’ll hold our caucus right here. There’ll be three groups of people and we’ll all be in separate corners of this room.” I knew not everyone would show up to caucus. But we all suspected that this primary election would be special.
By 3 o’clock, I started telling people that the caucusing might start at 7:30 because of the expected rush of people in the afternoon. And that all three caucuses might not fit in the one room.
By 6:30PM, 30 minutes before the polls closed, I was surrounded by 85 people approved to vote, but still waiting on a voting booth to open up. By then I told people that I had no idea how we were going to hold our caucuses, because of the sheer number of people I expected to show up. I figured the crowd outside at 7PM when we shuffled everyone inside was larger than the 125 people we had inside. I couldn’t stop to check.
At about 7:30, we wrapped up approving the ID of everyone in the room to vote, and the voters remaining were waiting for a booth to open up. I got up and went to take a potty break, which was just down the hall from the council chambers where we all were. I turned the corner to go down the hall, and found it filled with people. I had to clamber around just to get to the bathroom. Thankfully, they weren’t all waiting to use it in front of me…
And then it began.
The Election Judge/Precinct Chair for 639, David, decided to start by announcing to the people that were starting to filter back in to the Council Chambers room that we would have our precinct caucuses ONE AT A TIME, simply because there was not enough room to hold them all separately. The caucus for my precinct, 603, would start first. We needed a temporary Precinct Chair, and that turned out to be me. Mainly because I had confessed that I had done this a couple of times before.
However, I had never done the organizing of this before, but since I was the most experienced, I was chosen.
The room was crowded with people from my precinct; 102 of them when we counted.
Imagine, if you will, precincts where 500 people showed up to caucus. It happened yesterday.
Those 500 people had to wait until the overloaded voting booths there were empty, and by that time, people outside were getting angry. Police were called. The Police came, and told everyone to chill out.
It was cold and parents have to take care of children. Old people don’t like hanging around outside when it’s cold.
And 500 people shouldn’t have to show up to caucus expecting to get everything over with in 30 minutes.
[West Houston voters frustrated by long caucus wait
The party primary precinct caucus by law is open to any voter who voted in that party’s precinct primary election. I’ve attended precinct caucuses so small, they wouldn’t fill up a large booth at Denny’s. But last night we had 102 people, and I was the head idiot in charge.
The first thing I said was that I would accept the temporary role as Precinct Chair, but I did not want the permanent position. (“If elected I will not serve…”) That was an issue later on, but I’ll let that go for now.
The first order of business was to split everyone up according to their voting preference. Sen. Obama’s folks on one side of the room, Sen. Clinton’s folks on the other. I’m quite sure this happened in every precinct last night, almost exactly like this, but in various proportions.
I’ll cut to the chase, the breakdown was
Clinton — 38
Obama — 64
Or about a little less than 2-to-1 in favor of Obama’s people. Roughly along racial lines, but with several notable crossovers on both sides.
This doesn’t surprise me, as Obama did carry Harris County
Clinton wins Texas but Obama takes Harris County
The next order of business was to make sure everyone there had proof that they voted in either that day’s voting or by early voting. I had early voted, for example. There were nearly 30 pages (single spaced) of other early voters for our precinct.
In short, there was no time in which to verify that everyone had indeed a legal right to be there. We simply didn’t have the time to keep the other two precincts waiting outside, in the cool evening air. We had promised that they’d go home no later than eight, and we were up first and just got everyone in the room at 8:15.
We had to ask everyone to affirm they had indeed voted in the 603 Democratic Primary election. This was the only way we could go forward.
This was done in the name of expediency, and then was then quickly challenged by a member of the Clinton camp. Lovely. We might have to check everyone’s ID, which might keep us there until sunrise… Eventually the challenge was withdrawn, and we started counting heads, the result of which I’ve mentioned.
The 603 precinct sends 14 delegates to the Senate District 7 Convention.
From past experience, I told everyone to get people together that could attend the convention about MidJune and one particular location…
I was wrong on both the date and the location. I was eventually corrected, but the confusion was made a bit worse. Only a small handful of people had looked up what was to happen to the delegates that we would elect to represent the presidential candidates for our precinct.
Doing the math, the breakdown was:
Of the 14 delegates (and 14 alternates) that would go to the Senate District 7 convention,
Great! Now, just get the names of those delegates on the large signup sheets as delegates (and alternates) and we’re done!
NOT. SO. FAST.
It was at THAT point that nearly EVERYONE declared that they would not leave until they were signed up as participants in the caucus. They had looked it up; they had to sign something.
I agreed… but knew we didn’t have enough papers (we lost one of the four signup sheets until far too late)
So, all those people signing up on the formal sheet that weren’t going to the convention weren’t really helping matters, but it was their right to sign it.
Problem was, by this time, we were being ejected from the room by the next precinct wanting to come in to do the same thing, Precinct 720.
And the people that had yet to sign up (and still trying to find those willing to attend the Senate level Convention) weren’t going to leave the main table, crowding around it.
Ten minutes and one bullhorn later (yes, one of the people from another precinct brought a bullhorn) we were all filing outside to continue doing our sign ups.
In short, the prospective attendees for the Senate Convention for Clinton, both delegates and alternates, had to sign up on donated spiral paper.
All this time we had an amazingly cool and calm woman taking notes as official Precinct Secretary. She and I and another young woman eventually settled all of this and packaged it up and delivered it to David F. who promised he would take it downtown with the rest of the election materials.
Job done, around 10:45PM.
I went to Jack In The Box and got a very large and very fatty cheeseburger with fries, took it home, scarfed it down, and promptly collapsed.
— — —
I’ve been a proud Texas Democrat since I first voted for Jimmy Carter in my first election in 1976.
(Still have 3 unused stickers from that campaign!)
But in all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this.
Nor have most Texas Democrats
Officials amazed at crowds eager to back candidates
But this points out how broken the caucus system is. The way it’s set up, precinct level caucuses are not equipped to handle large numbers of people.
That said, the Democrat (and Republican!) parties need grass roots level support, and holding a meeting on the day of the primary is the best way of assuring that people get acquainted with the party itself, and perhaps even influencing party policy.
The first resolution in the Precinct 639 caucus I overheard?
GET RID OF THE CAUCUSES!!
This probably won’t happen. Texas will continue to hold them, I suspect.
But changes HAVE to be made, and the time to address this problem is this year.
If the Dems want to welcome the throngs of new voters that this election has delivered unto them, it’s best to make a package of information available that clarifies everything about the electoral process starting and especially at the precinct level.
You don’t want to piss off the people that took the time and the effort to show you THEY are willing to make a change.