Opinion

Washington Democrats are smart to dump presidential caucuses

Hillary Clinton supporters said they felt a little overwhelmed by Bernie Sanders supporters as Democrats cast votes for their preferred presidential candidates at caucus meetings throughout Washington state and at Jason Lee Middle School in 2016.
Hillary Clinton supporters said they felt a little overwhelmed by Bernie Sanders supporters as Democrats cast votes for their preferred presidential candidates at caucus meetings throughout Washington state and at Jason Lee Middle School in 2016. News Tribune file photo

Grassroots gatherings of passionate people will always have a treasured place in American civic life. But Washington state Democrats made the right decision this month by exchanging the uncertainty of neighborhood caucuses for the sanctity of private ballots when voters help pick their party’s presidential candidate next year.

Though it may pain them to emulate what state Republicans did before the last presidential election, Democrats had little choice but to change a nominating process that tied their party in knots in 2016 — a strange twist in a strange year that saw Donald Trump sent to the White House.

Democratic caucuses around the state pledged 74 of 101 national convention delegates to Bernie Sanders in 2016, despite a primary in which 53 percent of Democratic voters went for Hillary Clinton. Many Democrats felt betrayed, disenfranchised and confused.

Now, thanks to the combination of a unified state presidential primary and an earlier voting date — a new law will move it from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March — Washingtonians will have a real role in separating the contenders from the pretenders.

It’s about time.

In 2016 Democrats gathered in schools, libraries and meeting halls for six or more hours, debating the merits of Sanders vs. Clinton amid reports that Bernie backers behaved like bullies.

Several party stalwarts acknowledged the format is unfavorable for ordinary people with weekend jobs, child-care issues and family commitments. Not surprisingly, activists dominated caucus action.

The next month, more than three times as many Democrats participated in the presidential primary — 802,745 voters, compared to 230,000 in the caucuses. But the party followed its usual practice, ignoring what rank-and-file party members had communicated through Washington’s vote-by-mail system. It’s a practice that devalues ballots that are cast privately after personal deliberation, free from peer pressure and bullying.

We’re glad that good sense prevailed at the meeting of the state party’s central committee in Pasco, and that all delegates will be apportioned according to presidential primary results next year, barring an unlikely veto by the Democratic National Committee.

In a shrewd concession to grassroots purists and political insiders, caucus meetings still will be used to pick who goes to the July 2020 national convention in Milwaukee. This hybrid process is more workable than the mishmash that has confused Washingtonians in past presidential election years.

Heading toward 2020, the crop of Democratic candidates aiming to unseat Trump is a mile wide; polarization is inevitable while Sanders maintains a commanding presence in the field, and even if he doesn’t.

But honoring the will of the majority expressed by presidential primary will go a long way toward relieving friction inside the Democratic party and respecting democratic principles in general.

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