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After caucus chaos, Washington Democrats ask: Where’s our primary?

Last month, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly defeated Hillary Clinton in Washington’s Democratic precinct caucuses such as this one at Madison Elementary School in Olympia. But for those results to hold, those delegates and their alternates had to show up at Sunday’s legislative district caucuses, which lasted far into the night at some locations.
Last month, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly defeated Hillary Clinton in Washington’s Democratic precinct caucuses such as this one at Madison Elementary School in Olympia. But for those results to hold, those delegates and their alternates had to show up at Sunday’s legislative district caucuses, which lasted far into the night at some locations. toverman@theolympian.com

Not all Washington Democrats thought spending 12 hours in a high school auditorium on a Sunday was the best way for them to take part in democracy.

Many are now calling for the state Democratic Party to use a primary election to help decide the party’s presidential nominee, following legislative district caucuses Sunday that lasted far into the night at some locations.

“I would love to go to a primary because of everything that happened yesterday,” Kathy Orlando, the chairwoman of the 27th Legislative District Democrats, said Monday. “Or else somebody needs to come up with a better process.”

Many caucus meetings ran hours longer than expected Sunday, forcing many people to leave early and miss a chance to campaign to become delegates at the next round of caucuses.

Those congressional district caucuses, scheduled for May 21, will finalize how many of Washington’s 101 delegates will be awarded to presidential candidates at the Democratic National Convention.

While Republicans in Washington state are using the results of a May 24 primary election to allocate delegates to presidential candidates, Democrats are using the results of caucus meetings instead.

Last month, Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly defeated Hillary Clinton in Washington’s Democratic precinct caucuses, winning 73 percent of more than 26,000 precinct-level delegates statewide.

This was not the voice of the people. To really get the voice of the people, you need a vote of the people — and yeah, we should have a primary.

Beckie Summers, chairwoman of the 29th District Democrats, which held a legislative district caucus Sunday in Parkland

But for those results to hold, those delegates and their alternates had to show up at Sunday’s legislative district caucuses — or else their favored candidate could end up with a smaller share of delegates at the congressional district caucuses, which will decide how Washington’s delegates will be split between the candidates.

Democratic officials said people leaving early from Sunday’s caucuses didn’t affect the delegate allocations, which were based on an initial count of delegates who showed up.

Still, several local Democratic party volunteers said the drawn-out caucus meetings Sunday shut many people out of the process who couldn’t stay late. Those people weren’t able to vote on delegates to advance to the next level, or to urge other caucus participants to select them as delegates going forward.

“This was not the voice of the people,” said Beckie Summers, chairwoman of the 29th District Democrats, which held a legislative district caucus Sunday in Parkland.

“To really get the voice of the people, you need a vote of the people — and yeah, we should have a primary.”

At multiple caucus locations, volunteers were tasked with verifying the identities and credentials of delegates who were selected at last month’s precinct caucuses, but many said the data they received from the state was incomplete or inaccurate. Volunteers also lacked clear instructions for what to do when they ran into problems, several said.

That caused the sign-in process to take hours longer than it should have, said Lynda Foster, a volunteer in charge of checking delegates’ credentials at the 27th District caucus meeting at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma.

“I had to go precinct by precinct and check the accuracy of every single thing,” said Foster, who said she and other volunteers were checking credentials and resolving disputes among delegates for almost eight hours.

“The process was completely unacceptable.”

I would love to go to a primary because of everything that happened (Sunday).

Kathy Orlando, chairwoman of 27th District Democrats in Tacoma

As a result, the caucus meeting at Jason Lee lasted from about 1 p.m. until about 1 a.m. Many people had showed up even earlier to help set up or sign in, Foster said.

Some groups at Jason Lee were still choosing their delegates at midnight, and had to move out into the parking lot after the building closed for the night, said Michael Artime, a political science lecturer at Saint Martin’s University and Tacoma Community College who attended the meeting.

“We were all kind of hanging out in the parking lot, and there were people who were counting votes in the dark,” Artime said.

At Washington High School in Parkland, where Summers helped lead the caucus meeting for the 29th Legislative District, delegates were kicked out of the school cafeteria to make way for a cleaning crew at about 7:15 p.m. — more than six hours after the caucus meeting began.

The group wrapped up its work outside by about 7:30 p.m., electing 23 delegates and 11 alternates to advance to next month’s congressional district caucuses, Summers said.

Other legislative district caucuses — including ones in the 2nd Legislative District, the 26th Legislative District and the 28th Legislative District — also lasted as late as 9 p.m., volunteers there reported.

The process was completely unacceptable.

Lynda Foster, volunteer in charge of checking credentials at 27th Legislative District caucus at Jason Lee Middle School

Foster said she and others brought or ordered food to help people stay through the evening. The Bernie Sanders campaign ordered pizzas to be delivered to Jason Lee, she said.

Derek Young, a Pierce County Council member who chaired Sunday’s caucus meeting in the 26th Legislative District, called Sunday’s caucus process “shameful.”

Young, who tweeted his frustration at state party chairman Jaxon Ravens, said he will be pushing for the party to switch to a presidential primary going forward.

“If we’re going to be calling ourselves the Democratic Party in the future, we can’t have a process that excludes people with small children, people with disabilities and people with jobs,” said Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor.

Republicans have made similar arguments recently, saying the state’s all-mail primary election gives more people the opportunity to vote.

“A Democratic vote is a statewide vote where everyone gets to express their opinion,” said Susan Hutchison, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, in an interview last month. “That’s why we keep saying the Democrats need to change their name.”

In 2008, nearly 1.4 million people voted in Washington’s presidential primary, with almost 700,000 of them voting for Democratic candidates. That’s a much higher number than the 250,000 people who showed up to Democratic precinct caucuses that year, or the estimated 230,000 people who attended this year’s precinct caucuses.

Phyllis Farrell, the chairwoman of the 2nd Legislative District Democrats, said she thinks the caucus system works better among smaller groups of voters, like groups of neighbors meeting in one person’s living room. That’s how she experienced her first caucuses years ago when she lived in Iowa, she said.

The volunteer-run process becomes less practical when you’re processing hundreds of people in large locations like a school gymnasium or auditorium, Farrell said.

“All these people are not paid staff people who are accountable. They’re volunteers. You start to question the feasibility,” Farrell said.

She said the state party should “absolutely” consider switching to a primary.

All these people are not paid staff people who are accountable, They’re volunteers. You start to question the feasibility.

Phyllis Farrell, chairwoman of the 2nd Legislative District Democrats

Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the Washington State Democrats, said party volunteers will have the chance to make that change prior to the 2020 presidential election.

The Washington State Democratic Central Committee, which consists of volunteers from counties and legislative districts throughout the state, will vote in late 2018 or early 2019 on whether to use a presidential primary or a caucus system, he said.

“It’s their choice,” he said.

In the past, party officials have preferred the caucus system because the meetings are a good opportunity to get people involved in state and local campaigns, Raad said.

Raad said the large number of people who attended the March precinct caucuses — about 230,000 — contributed to some of the difficulties volunteers experienced Sunday, including with incomplete delegate information.

Raad said confirming and correcting delegate information was “a mammoth task” to accomplish in the three weeks between the precinct-level caucuses and Sunday’s legislative caucuses.

State party officials are talking to local volunteers to see where they can make improvements, Raad said.

“I know for sure it would be making sure there are enough folks to process things in a timely manner,” he said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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