Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Making The Caucuses Happen, Part 1

Most of you have noticed that the pace of posts here at the Deeth Blog has slowed to a crawl, or that you're seeing the beret at fewer and fewer events, or that I can't even keep up with the Twitterverse.

There's a really good reason for that, and I'm going to use a lot what little writing time I have between now and February 1 explaining.

Close to a year ago, I offered to organize the caucuses for the Johnson County Democrats. By "the caucuses" I don't mean the campaign events - I mean the rooms and the chairs and the logistics of making the caucuses themselves happen.

This is the first in X number of posts about what has to happen to make the caucuses happen and what's going on behind the scenes of the county parties. Other counties, please steal my ideas.

Almost no one outside Iowa, and not very many people IN Iowa, gets that the caucuses are NOT an election run by the election office. They are a meeting run by the political parties. And at the local level political parties are an almost entirely volunteer operation, without the permanent infrastructure or even temporary paid labor pool an auditor has.

I'm in a unique spot, as an auditor's staffer who's also organizing the caucuses. It's a lot like work except for the key difference that I get paid at work and I take vacation time to work on caucuses.

The biggest difference is the locations. Your caucus site is not necessarily your polling place and not necessarily the same place it was last time. (Also note that because of the early 2012 date, there have NEVER been presidential caucuses under the current precinct lines. In my county precincts were extensively re-drawn.)

Polling places are more or less permanent, with occasional moves. With the caucuses, you start from scratch each time. AND you need twice as many spots, because you have two separate parties caucusing at the same time - sometimes in the same building but often not. This is a particular crunch this year when, as in 2008, both parties have open contests.

The physical needs of the space are also different. In an election, people come and go all day and there are rarely more than a few people on site at once. You can set up in a lobby or a classroom and be OK.

At the caucuses, everyone is on site at the same time. That means everyone is going through the line at the same time, and everyone needs to stay in the same physical space, at least for a while. Longer if you're a Democrat. I assume most readers get the way the vote counting goes at caucuses. If not here's a bipartisan/nonpartisan thing I wrote at work that has safe neutral examples using dead presidents.

I started working on locations back in June. In many ways, Democrats were victims of our 2008 success, when the record crowds overwhelmed sites. My gut check is turnout will retreat some from that high water mark, but I've heard multiple reports that counties had more challenges setting locations this year because of the 2008 wave.

Public-funded facilities like schools and city halls are required by law to provide caucus space at no charge to the parties in presidential years. However, no one is required to cancel school events to provide space, and that cost us a couple sites.

One problem that didn't come up: In past years sites have been scheduled then had to get re-scheduled when other states broke the nomination calendar.

Most places sign out space first come first served. In past years there has been cross-party competition to score the best spots, but I took the opposite approach and partnered with the Johnson County GOP chair, Bill Keettel, and several of the other key GOP activists. My experience is: when it comes to running a good caucus and protecting First In The Nation, we're Iowans first and Republicans and Democrats second.

The Republicans and I had a couple long meetings with my county's biggest site host, the Iowa City School District, where we went building by building and divvied up sites based on turnout estimates. In other places we shared intelligence, leg work, and even reserved space for one another.

CHECK YOUR LOCATION. Democrats have a handy statewide site looker upper. Hopefully Republicans will make one similar soon.

A lot of our Johnson County caucuses are in different locations than the "traditional" site. Key examples that locals will know: There are no Democratic caucuses at Shimek, Lemme, Longfellow, West High, or Horace Mann. Some of these were space issues based on the 2008 turnout, and the district gave Republicans (who in Johnson County expect lower turnout) those sites. At West High, it was school events.

There are also no Democratic caucuses at the Iowa Memorial Union but I'm not supposed to talk about that.

Caucus goers, make a transportation plan. Parking will be at a premium pretty much everywhere. If you can walk or cab or bus, do that. We're calling cab companies and giving them a heads up to maybe have more people on hand. And carpool, Carpool, CARPOOL. 

As for rides, the candidate of your choice is your best bet. Based on the last couple cycles, a LOT of out of state volunteers will descend on the state and rides are a perfect task for them.

In addition to the sites, county parties also need to recruit the caucus chairs. "Temporary" chairs, technically, though they are almost always chosen as permanent chairs. (I got challenged in 2012 and I may be the only one.) It's harder in some ways for parties to find chairs than for auditors to get workers. For one thing, election workers get PAID while caucus chairs are volunteers.

Also, if there aren't enough workers living in a precinct, the auditor can hire someone from another precinct and they can vote absentee. At the caucuses, you can't do that. I've seen county chairs go out to the smallest rural precinct (in an uncontested year) and "chair" it (i.e. wait for no one to arrive.) They had to give up their vote to do that.

County parties are also competing with campaigns, who need their own precinct chairs to herd the cats for Bernie or Hillary or Marty. The campaigns have been very good at sending me help. If you have candidate commitments, you can still help sign people in. It'll be better for you, because smoother sign in means alignment starts faster. And one of the challenges of cat herding is keeping your people ON SITE until the delegate allocation is final.

We recruited our 57th and last chair last week. I was stuck in the 50s for a long time till a final push, then I bounced back and forth between 56 and 57 for a day as I lost and replaced two chairs. We're having a make-up training this weekend for the new recruits and folks who missed the state party's training, which was mostly done in the mid-fall.

We have a couple local traditions in Johnson County worth mentioning.

The "stuffing party" is where we add local materials to the state-provided packets - a few supplies, but most importantly the local nomination papers. (State party takes care of legislators and congressional types.) The local candidates are expected to make up the volunteer labor force.

We also have a "Unity Party" on caucus night. Precinct chairs turn in their stuff and we watch the results and speeches. It's a good tradition that focuses folks on the end goal of winning.

Don't really have a conclusion here, just watch for more of these.

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