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Caucus for dummies

A nonpartisan primer on the Washington presidential caucus

I have never been to a caucus before, but this year, I’m more inspired than ever to have input into this system (if you don’t vote, you can’t complain). However, I had a hard time finding the information that would help me get started. I started asking questions and digging up information for myself, and I’m here to share it with you — in a nonpartisan way — with the goal of helping more people have a voice in this election.  

Q:    Since our caucus is on Feb. 9 — after Super Tuesday — will it even matter?
A:    Quite possibly. We don’t know how Super Tuesday will turn out, so it’s best to be prepared to attend and participate in the Washington caucus. We could be at a place where every delegate counts. Also, after Super Tuesday, less-viable candidates’ delegates may be in play, so our delegates will still be valuable. Plus, what a cool way to fulfill your civic duty!

Q:    If Washington state has a caucus, then what’s all this I hear about a primary?
A:    It’s crazy, but in fact, Washington state has both a caucus (on Feb. 9) and a primary (on Feb. 19). Big warning: Don’t be fooled by the primary (especially since absentee ballots will be distributed on or around Jan. 30). The caucus is first and has more impact on who the people of Washington select for their presidential candidates than the primary. Here are some specifics to be aware of: 

  • Democrats select 100 percent of their delegates to the national convention based on the caucuses — even though there is a primary ballot for Democrats.
  • Republicans will allocate 51 percent of their delegates based on the primary results and 49 percent based on the caucus results.
  • An individual can vote/be represented in both the caucus and the primary, as long as they stay in one party for both. (I could be counted in the caucus and vote in the primary.)  
  • The full text of information about the primary from the secretary of state can be found here . In other words – if you’re a Democrat, your primary ballot for president doesn’t really matter that much. If you’re a Republican, it does. Either way, you should still go to your local caucus.

Q:    What is the timing for the caucus?
A:     The latest you should arrive is 1 p.m. . The first half-hour is when folks get registered and acquainted and when they start chatting. Nominating can begin at 1:30 p.m.

Q:    What is the experience like? What happens at a caucus?

A:    While I’ve never been to one, I’ve spoken with a few folks who have, and it sounds nutty but fun (kind of like a Snickers bar). Following are what I understand the main steps to be:

  • In advance of the caucus, find out what your precinct is and where your precinct will be caucusing (see below for how to do this).
  • On Saturday, Feb. 9, you go to that location, walk in and sign in (getting there by 1 p.m.).
  • You gather by precinct and do some schmoozing and discussing.
  • At 1:30 p.m., subgroups form around the candidates and a person is selected from among each candidate group to speak to the larger precinct about that candidate.
  • Each candidate group gets to speak and, at some point, the precinct chair asks people to align by candidate. People then shuffle around to where they are putting their support.  
  • There may be additional speaking and deliberation.
  • If a candidate doesn’t have that much support, there could be some jockeying for those people by the other candidates.
  • At some point (not predetermined), the precinct chair finalizes the results, takes a head count and, based on the percentage breakout, distributes the delegates who have been allocated to that precinct based on population of the precinct (not based on caucus attendance). For example, let’s say a precinct has 1,000 residents in it – it may have 10 delegates allocated to it. In the caucus, if there are 100 people who show up and 40 of them support candidate A, 40 support candidate B and 20 support candidate C, then candidate A gets four delegates, B gets four delegates and C gets two delegates.  
  • Only the first round of delegate voting takes place on Feb. 9,  but that round should be reflective of the final outcome of the state caucuses. The precinct-elected delegates (they are chosen by the group at the caucus) then go to district, county and state caucuses, with the final caucus selecting the delegates who go to the national convention.

Q:    How do I know where my caucus is and what my precinct number is?
A:    Your precinct number is on your voter registration card. However, your voter location is not necessarily your caucus location. Use the tools listed below to find out your precinct number (if you don’t have your voter registration card) and/or to find out the caucus location.   

  • Tool to use on the Democrat Web site: Ninety percent of registered Democrat voters will find their info at www.wa-democrats.org/caucusfinder; the other 10 percent should call the number on that Web page.
  • Tool to use on the Republican Web site: All counties are listed here. King County has a specific tool here .

Q:    Can kids attend?
A:    Kids are allowed to come (they won’t count toward the total unless they’re going to be 18 by the election in November), but you may want to find child care.

Q:    Do I have to have identification?
A:    I’m still trying to determine that. I don’t think so, but it’s safer to bring it, – even if it’s your driver’s license, voter registration ID or passport.

Q:    Do I have to be registered to vote before the caucus?
A:    No. You can register to vote at the caucuses, as long as you’ll be 18 by the November election.

Q:    Do I need to be registered with a particular party prior to the caucus? Or, if I am, can I only participate in its caucus?
A:    While you will need to choose a party (or stick with the one you’ve chosen), even if you are registered for a particular party already, you can change your allegiance for the day (although you can’t participate in both caucuses on the same day).  

Q:    What if I’m religious and don’t write on Shabbat? How do I register to participate in the caucuses?
A:    The only necessary writing that I could ascertain is the signature when you register. So, in theory, you could show up and still present arguments and participate in the caucus in that capacity. There is a form to fill out so that you can have a proxy in the actual process. Please note that this needs to be submitted by Feb. 1 to actually count!

Q:    How do I get selected as a delegate?
A:    The people in a particular candidate’s group select their delegates from among that group.

Q:    What are the dates for subsequent district/state/national gatherings?
A:    April 5 is the next one. More information can be found on the Web sites listed below.

For more information:

DemocratsWashington State Democrats caucus information center

RepublicansFrequently asked questions on the King County Republican Web site .

Suzi LeVine is a mom and former Expedia executive. She currently volunteers with the Kavana Cooperative, the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, UW Hillel and certain political campaigns.

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