First, a disclaimer: I am writing this post at the request of some of my followers who live in California (where I lived my entire life until 2014) and have never experienced a caucus, because they asked me to write a blog post about my experience with the Washington State Democratic Caucus. This blog is not intended to be political and does not endorse any specific candidates for public office.
Shortly before the caucuses, I replied to a Facebook post stating that I was planning on attending and hoped that the discussion would be civil and informative. Indeed, it was. My neighbors and I do not agree on everything, including which candidate to support, but I was pleased that we could bring up our differences of opinion candidly and respectfully without attacking each other or either candidate.
The Caucus process feels a bit anachronistic, but in a good way. Back in the days before the Internet and social media, I imagine caucuses were a unique chance for neighbors to gather and discuss the candidates for President in a forum that encourages open debate. Decades ago, caucuses might have even been considered important events that brought a majority of the residents of each town together.
Today caucuses attract a relatively small number of voters. In Washington State, a record 250,000 voters participated in the 2008 caucuses, and estimates suggest that over 230,000 participated this year. That's only about 3 percent of the state's population.
Still, I read that some caucus locations were so overcrowded that they relocated to outdoor parks to accommodate the hundreds of people who showed up. Fortunately, it was a sunny day in Seattle. My caucus location, at a nearby elementary school, was much smaller and very well organized. Tables in the cafeteria were marked with large signs indicating the precinct number.
Caucus goers in my precinct ranged in age from 17- to 21-year-olds voting in their first presidential election (in WA, 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by November 8 are eligible to vote) to those older than the presidential candidates. The caucus was scheduled to start at 10:00, but by the time I arrived at 9:40 the place was fairly full.
Apparently the 10:00 start time was specified with stragglers in mind. Actual voting didn't begin until 10:30. Meanwhile, we chatted about politics and other topics. At 10:30, precinct chairs collected and counted our ballots, and then allotted delegates to Sanders and/or Clinton according to the results. Now came the part where anyone who wished to could stand up and present their reasons for favoring their candidate.
This was happening simultaneously in all 6 or so precincts in the room, so it got a bit noisy and speakers needed to project their voices in order to be heard. Also, sometimes people would be applauding a speaker in another precinct while ours was in the middle of talking. Despite all this, everyone got a chance to have their voice heard. Then the precinct chair gave everyone the opportunity to change their vote if desired - the ballot forms have a space for preliminary and final preference - and counted the ballots again.
There was no change, so we split up into a table of Sanders supporters and a table of Clinton supporters and each group chose the appropriate number of delegates (and an equal number of alternates) to send to the legislative district caucuses on April 17. Anyone registered to vote in the state of Washington who declares themselves to be a Democrat and participates in the caucus can be a delegate. The process really went fairly smoothly. Those who wanted to be delegates got the opportunity.
The number of delegates per precinct follows a formula explained in a lengthy document - it's based on the number of people in the precinct who voted for Obama in November 2008, unless the precinct boundaries have changed in the years since that election, in which case it is more complicated. Perhaps high school algebra teachers can come up with some problems and see if the students can figure out how many delegates to allot to each precinct.
All the precincts throughout the state collectively chose over 26,000 delegates to attend this next level caucus. This will eventually be distilled, throughout a multi-step process, into 102 delegates to the National Democratic Convention in July.
Back to my title question: What do the caucuses have to do with sustainability? I have found an answer in a book I am reading, The Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs says, "Sustainable development is a way to understand the world as a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental, and political systems." His book explains how government policies and elected officials, whether at a local or national level, can advance or hinder efforts toward sustainable development. Voting is a way for individuals to have their voices heard, and, in this election cycle more than any other in recent history, those voices are speaking loudly.