WASHINGTON — The state Democratic party wants to hear from Democrats. On March 6, the party opened a 30-day comment-period on two proposed plans for the 2020 Presidential Primary: one that would preserve the traditional caucus system, and another that would partially replace caucuses with a vote by ballot.

Currently, Washington Republicans use a primary election to allocate delegates to each candidate, while Democrats use caucuses. However, a push to switch both parties to voting by ballot is gaining momentum because a growing number of voters feel the Democrats’ caucus is not especially democratic.

Cafeteria full of donkeys

In 2016, both parties held primary votes in May, but only Republicans used the results to allocate delegates. For Democrats, the primary is a “beauty contest” — a symbolic vote. Instead, Dems allocate delegates during big, often chaotic public events in March.

Under the caucus system, Democrats across the state gather in community facilities — often school cafeterias — on a designated day. They take an initial tally of supporters for each candidate, then participants may give short speeches to try to sway undecided voters towards their preferred candidate. A second tally is taken and delegates are allotted to each candidate based on the results.

Democrats decide who will serve as delegates at the July Democratic National Convention at the legislative and congressional district caucuses later in the spring.

19th century politics

The caucus system was adopted in the early 1800s, when America was a relatively new nation of geographically and socially isolated communities with none of today’s telecommunications infrastructure, according to the nonpartisan think tank, Council on Foreign Relations. By the 1830s, some political leaders were already criticizing caucuses for being inefficient, and for giving a disproportionate amount of power to party-insiders. However, until about 1972, most states used the caucus system to allocate delegates. Now, fewer than half do.

Crowd-sourcing democracy

Proponents love the way caucuses bring people together. They say the process creates party cohesion, promotes a civil exchange of ideas and opinions and encourages people to carefully examine their views. Pro-caucus commenters on the Washington Democrats Facebook page shared a variety of reasons for their preference. One man said “caucuses give people a voice.” According to another, “Caucuses help nominate the candidate with the strongest grassroots support.”

In a caucus system, local and regional party leaders control the early stages of the selection process. If the state party were to switch to a primary, the Secretary of state would oversee a ballot vote, with help from elected county auditors.

Pro-voting voters

Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, an outspoken advocate for primaries, recently called the caucus “the greatest act of voter suppression,” according to the Tacoma News Tribune. Like many other critics, Wyman believes caucuses are antiquated and elitist, in part because they are time-consuming and require participants to be physically present. The events usually take place on evenings or weekends and take several hours. That creates barriers to participation for people who work odd hours, parents who don’t have childcare, those who lack transportation and those suffering financial hardships.

Pacific County Republicans Chairwoman Nansen Malin believes her party’s preference for voting by ballot is more “grassroots.”

“I think it gives a more representative sample of how voters think,” Malin said. She noted that the physical presence requirement means Democrats who are in the military, homebound or living abroad don’t get to be heard.

“There is no proxy or absentee ballot for caucus representation,” Malin said.

Time to weigh in

Democrats can read the proposals, express their preference and optionally comment on the proposals online at https://www.waelectioncenter.com/

The state legislature recently passed a bill that, if signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, will move the traditional late-May Presidential Primary to March 10, 2020. Wyman and other proponents of the earlier day say the change will give Washington far more political relevance because it will take place before the herd of candidates has been thinned down to the finalists.

The bill would also clear up legal complexities that previously kept Washington from switching to a two-party primary.

If the party chooses the primary-caucus hybrid model, the results of the March Primary will determine the proportions of delegates for the whole selection process, but Democrats will still still select the actual delegates through caucuses at the legislative and congressional levels.

After the public comment period closes, the Washington State Central Committee, the governing body for the state Democratic Party, will vote on April 7.

Natalie St. John is a staff writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact her at 360-642-8181 or nstjohn@chinookobserver.com.

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