Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The Texas primary is over, but the count goes on.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the Austin Texas Debate

The presidential road show has rolled out of Texas-after its first full run in 20 years-but the politicking hasn’t. Sen. Hillary Clinton secured a 4-point win in the Texas Democratic primary that rescued her candidacy, and in many states that would have been the end of it. In Texas Democratic politics, it’s seldom so simple.

There is still the matter of the Democratic caucuses-the second, trickier step in the Texas Democratic Party’s unique primary-caucus hybrid system, the so-called Texas Two-Step.

The caucus results won’t be official until the Democratic state convention in early June. The estimates announced on election night-which had Sen. Barack Obama leading 56-44 percent-were based on just 41 percent of the precincts, those that voluntarily phoned in results. Caucus-apportioned delegates can change their minds and switch allegiances until the state convention. The Clinton campaign is already challenging the process. This is far from settled.

The word caucus comes from the Algonquin language spoken by Native Americans across the Eastern Seaboard. In its ideal, it promises participatory democracy at its purest and most challenging. While the Texas Democratic primary attracted a record-setting 2.8 million voters, the caucus turnout was even more impressive. Party officials estimate that more than a million Democrats returned to their polling places on the night of March 4 to caucus. That shatters the previous record-100,000 in 1988-by a factor of 10 (and it’s more votes than John McCain received in the GOP primary). Yet Texas, as it often does, fell far from the ideal, and with the high turnout came chaos.

Widespread reports emerged from across the state of two- and three-hour waits just to sign in. Precincts ran out of sign-in sheets. Eligible voters were turned away. The Clinton and Obama campaigns each accused the other of cheating, including filling out sign-in sheets in advance-a major no-no.

The state Democratic Party blames the trouble on huge turnout, not its own lack of organization and resources.

“While there were problems on election night, that’s what’s going to happen when you have a million people across the state trying to caucus,” said Hector Nieto, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “You’re going to have people in cramped rooms, people miscommunicating. But it’s a good problem to have. I can assure you that the Republican Party wishes they had our problems right now.

“There was no way to estimate how many people were going to participate on election night. We may have had the largest caucus in the history of the United States. Iowa doesn’t even see numbers like this.”

Still, many Democrats view the March 4 caucuses as an embarrassment. Some want the party to ditch caucuses entirely, and there may be a move in that direction at the state convention. Others gladly tolerated the problems, happy to participate in the democratic process.

The lines were long in McAllen. Voters didn’t understand the convoluted Democratic caucus procedure, but they knew they wanted to be part of history.

As volunteers for Sens. Obama and Clinton passed out campaign stickers at the Palmer Pavilion in south McAllen, a precinct volunteer stood on a chair and shouted directions to the noisy group of about 200 people.

In the confusion and waiting, a few college students wandered out, yet the majority stayed.

“I’ll wait all night if I have to. I think it’s exciting,” said Nydia Trevino.

At the end of the night, Precincts 139 and 7 both nominated more delegates for Clinton than for Obama. Precinct 139, in downtown McAllen, designated one delegate for Obama and two for Clinton. Precinct 7, which encompasses southeastern McAllen, designated five delegates for Obama and 15 for Clinton. Clinton romped in South Texas in both the primary and the caucus. Yet historically low voter turnout in general elections doomed South Texas to a disproportionately small cache of delegates (delegates are awarded partly on the basis of past turnout).

Obama’s stronghold was delegate-rich Houston. There were long lines at some Bayou City precincts as well, but they were nothing compared with the confusion that reigned at North Houston caucuses.

At Precinct 157 in the Acres Homes area, an overwhelmingly African-American community, the atmosphere was part neighborhood party and part object lesson in how not to run a caucus. Confused voters, traffic jams, overcrowded polling places, and election officials improvising rules-it was not democracy at its finest. Long lines formed immediately outside the tiny Highland Community Center. “It’s like they say-don’t mess with Texas,” said voter Charles Nelms. “But it looks like Texas is going to be a mess tonight.”

Regardless, energized voters turned out by the hundreds, chatting and chanting in the chilly air. Obama supporters vastly outnumbered Clinton enthusiasts.

Texas Caucus

The actual sign-in process went quickly once people were inside, but tallying the returns proved difficult. Caucus organizers quickly realized that many voters hadn’t provided full identifying information. Some failed to register a presidential preference or fill in their voter certificate numbers. No one could find a calculator to add the totals. An attorney for the Obama campaign was handling the sheets (until an official noticed it). Some people were still trying to sign even after sign-in had been closed. “I don’t think all the workers are educated on what to do,” said one voter observing the process.

Finally, the election judge led the remaining caucus-goers out to the bleachers of a nearby softball field to discuss the problems. Before the discussion could happen, the results of the caucus were announced; 271 people had signed in for Obama, and 20 for Clinton. The newly elected precinct chair began handpicking young people to act as Obama delegates.

By 10 p.m., everybody had left except for a few bleary-eyed poll workers and the election judge. No one could find the sheet with the vote totals. The group decided to reconvene the next morning to verify results.

In an economically and racially mixed neighborhood in South Austin, approximately 500 people waited in the street outside an apartment complex for more than two hours to caucus. Those with wireless devices checked poll results in Texas and Ohio, and shouted them to the crowd. Because the Democratic Party failed to provide enough sign-in sheets, someone made a quick run to a place with a copy machine for more. Participants snaked single-file into a laundry room, the makeshift location for Precinct 440, to register their candidate preference. A resident came in, looked quizzically at the caucus-goers, and then started doing her laundry.

While dozens grew dispirited and departed early, by the end, 421 caucused. The final tally was 254 for Obama and 167 for Clinton. It worked out to a delegate split of 24-13. But the results also produced an intangible that can only come from joining your neighbors in a common endeavor.

On Fort Worth’s south side, voters from all over the historic Fairmont neighborhood streamed into Daggett Elementary School to caucus. The school hosts six precincts.

Voters from Precinct 4096 gathered in the gym. Usually 10 or 15 people turn out for the caucus, said state Rep. Lon Burnam, who lives in the precinct. On this night, more than 120 people signed in. The final tally was 57 percent for Obama and 43 percent for Clinton, which meant Obama received one extra delegate to the county convention. Each precinct will send roughly half a delegate to the national convention. In another caucus down the hall in the cafeteria, Clinton emerged with a slight edge.

Everywhere you looked at Daggett, the Democratic Party seemed to be reconstituting itself. In a tiny classroom at the end of the hall, about 20 people-all blacks and Latinos-sat in silence, wedged into the small chairs and desks. None had caucused before. “We’re trying to figure out what we’re doing,” said a woman seated next to the door. This was Precinct 4084. There hadn’t been a caucus in 4084 for years because no one ever bothered to show up. There was no precinct chair.

Finally, Mike Utt, Daggett’s volunteer election judge, arrived to explain the process. They soon signed in for their candidates-18 for Hillary and two for Obama.

“If anybody’s interested in becoming a precinct chairperson, let me know,” Utt announced. “You handle elections. They actually pay you to do this.” Juanita Robles raised her hand. She’s lived in the neighborhood all her life and voted in many elections, but never attended a caucus until now. The energy of the Clinton-Obama race had drawn her to Daggett. By the end of the night, she was the Democratic Party’s newest precinct chair. Seated at a small, green table in a classroom, Robles filled out the necessary paperwork and prepared to call in the caucus results. On March 29, she said, she will attend the county convention. “We’re just getting started with the process in general,” Robles said. “We volunteered, and now it’s our baby.”

Will caucus-goers return for the county conventions on March 29? The Clinton campaign has asked the state party to verify the identities of caucus goers before the county conventions take place. At press time the state party had not responded. Everyone elected as a delegate (or an alternate) at the precinct caucuses is supposed to caucus again at the county conventions, where delegates will be named for the third and final tier in the process-the state convention. It’s one thing to show up on the night of a major Election Day during the excitement of a campaign. It’s quite another to devote a spring Saturday four weeks later to the arcane process of delegate selection. The Clinton and Obama campaigns must ensure that their delegates turn up for the county conventions, and that they don’t change their minds. Delegates aren’t locked into a candidate until the state convention. All of which means the caucus results remain fluid.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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