Washington Dems Ditched the Caucus. Will That Make Our Votes Count?

By switching to an earlier, mail-in voting system, the state’s Democratic leaders hope Washington becomes a primary season destination.

By Benjamin Cassidy February 21, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Could switching to a March primary put Washington voters in the spotlight?

Image: Dan Page

Four years later, Tom Schmidt still hears the hollering. Like he did every presidential election cycle, the self-employed Beacon Hill accountant reported to his precinct’s caucus on March 26, 2016. No matter where he had lived before—Illinois, Texas, California, New Mexico—Schmidt had always kept his parents’ childhood message in mind: You vote. You make your voice heard. When he settled in Seattle more than two decades ago, he learned that, as a Democrat, full-throated political participation meant caucusing.

Though the Washington legislature first held a presidential primary in 1992, the state’s Democrats retained the famously bewildering caucus system to allocate delegates, picking the party’s nominee based on impassioned supporters’ candidate pitches, precinct tallies, and, ultimately, dreaded “delegate math.” Schmidt had tolerated all those time-sucking steps during past elections, but nothing quite prepared him for the chaos at Grover Cleveland High School on that Saturday morning in 2016, during last cycle’s, er, vociferous Bernie-or-Hillary meetings. The interminable line, the shoddy sign-in process, the cramped bleachers, the hours of shouting—oh, the shouting—made for an environment about as comfortable as that Marriage Story row. Suddenly, making your voice heard didn’t sound so good. “If that was the first caucus that I ever went to,” the 63-year-old Schmidt says, “I would never go to another one again.”

But this year, being a dutiful Dem won’t require a peep. Less than two weeks after he announced a short-lived Democratic presidential run last March, governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that moved the state’s 2020 presidential primary from May up to March 10, a week after Super Tuesday. The shift was one reason why the Washington State Democratic Central Committee voted to let the primary decide the state’s preferred candidate this cycle. Now caucuses will merely select the 89 delegates who will join 18 automatic delegates at the national convention this summer in Milwaukee. The changes seek to turn Washington, a blue stronghold post-Reagan but long an afterthought on the campaign trail, into a primary season player.

“We wanted to be more relevant,” state party chair Tina Podlodowski says. “We wanted to make sure that Democratic presidential candidates came through the state of Washington.”

Scholars and politicos often debate campaign stops’ influence. While a rally can occasionally yield promises on issues relevant to that particular state, it doesn’t always affect ballots. A study during the 2012 presidential election season, for example, revealed that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s visits made little impression on voter intentions. Other research suggests varying effects, and one major complicating factor: individual candidates’ charisma.

Those ambiguous findings haven’t stopped local party leaders from feeling slighted when candidate itineraries omit Washington. But that shade may not stem from the shadow of our old nomination process.

The 2016 Washington state Democratic precinct caucuses at Eckstein Middle School in North Seattle.

By 2016’s national convention, Washington Dems’ method for backing a presidential candidate had become more democracy punch line than debate fodder. With Donald Trump entrenched as the Republican candidate and the Democrats already pledging 74 of their 101 delegates to caucus-winner Bernie Sanders, the state held an inconsequential primary in May that cost nearly $9 million. In its futility, however, the primary was revelatory: While 230,000 or so voters participated in the party’s caucuses, more than 800,000 cast a mail-in vote for the primary, selecting Hillary Clinton over Sanders. Washington wasn’t a Bernie bastion, as the caucus results had suggested; it was a liberal battleground.

Yet, the tight race didn’t compel either candidate to spend much time in our Washington until after Super Tuesday (Sanders did hold a large Seattle event in August 2015).  This year’s ballots were mailed well before then, but the state’s final tally still falls a week after that increasingly crucial day, when California and 13 other states will pledge more than 1,000 delegates. In this election and future ones, will candidates really be motivated to build momentum in Washington any earlier than that? “I don’t know how much you’d bother coming here before March 3,” says Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University professor who has studied U.S. elections.

Conversely, state party chair Podlodowski says the move up in the cycle is already working. She cites a host of candidate visits before the New Year. (Elizabeth Warren also opened two Seattle offices by mid-December.) “People have seen far more of the presidential candidates than they would have seen otherwise,” Podlodowski says.

Even if Washington never becomes an Iowa or a New Hampshire, only the most ardent party activists will mourn the diminished role of the caucus, a vestige of sway-your-neighbor American political idealism that persists amid the country’s polarization. Podlodowski says many 2016 precinct meetings lasted between eight and 13 hours, and King County Democrats chair Shasti Conrad heard numerous stories of lines like the one Schmidt encountered. She also witnessed overwhelmed volunteers. “I wasn’t completely certain that we were actually doing it right and doing it equitably,” Conrad says.

Most critically, the caucuses pose problematic obstacles to participation—wage losses, childcare, and language barriers—that a mail-in primary vote does not. “The caucuses disenfranchise so many people,” Schmidt says. Ultimately, as much as the ones yelling, it was the voices missing that demanded the Washington caucuses’ demise.

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