Before the general election takes place, party nominees are selected through state primaries or caucuses, and are then allotted delegates based on their performance in these contests. Maine’s Democratic caucuses took place over this past weekend, on March 6, with Bernie Sanders earning 64.3 percent of votes to Hillary Clinton’s 35.5 percent. This resulted in a 15 to 7 delegate distribution to Bernie and Hillary, respectively. Attending a caucus for the first time, I was able to experience first-hand the somewhat inefficient yet traditional process of caucuses.
Caucuses are unique in that they are one of the few instances where politics become a part of public dialogue and conversation. No longer is the act of discussing politics openly a taboo topic. Nor is it like state primaries or elections, in that there is no private act of arriving, voting, and leaving. In this regard, caucuses appear to be a remnant of active participation in the process of democracy, ensuring that voices are heard and thoughts are exchanged. In theory, it would seem as though this sort of a tradition is a wonderful way to gauge a community’s political tendencies as well as partake in meaningful debate. However, in reality, the process is chaotic and cumbersome.
One signature aspect of the Maine caucuses, along with those of some other states, is that they are closed events, which means that individuals are required to be affiliated with the political party that is holding that primary or caucus event. Given that more Americans are not registered in either party than there are affiliated with either of the two parties, the majority of citizens are already not able to partake in the process. If they wish to, they must register and officially affiliate with a political party. Luckily, Maine allows same-day registration, allowing for people to switch party affiliations on the spot.
The majority of attendees at the Maine Democratic Caucus at Lewiston High School were first-time caucus-goers, a fact that was noted by a show of hands during a large communal gathering of all attendees. Following the convening of the caucus, a series of introductions, the caucus agenda, and brief candidate pitches, caucus-goers separate into their respective wards and what will then become their voting districts.
Slips of papers are handed out early in this process, asking for general information about the voter as well as an eventual choice of presidential candidate. Individuals in each ward separate for their preferred candidate, with those in the middle representing the uncommitted. A tally is taken, by hand of each and every vote, and are then confirmed. Followup pitches are presented by a representative of each side in two minutes to convince both uncommitted voters as well as those on another side, finally culminating in a final vote count and the allocation of delegates.
Overall, the process seems endless, and more importantly, it appears inefficient. While there is something incredibly refreshing about seeing democracy in action and seeing individuals respectfully talk to one another about politics, the process of actually casting votes and being counted is incredibly archaic.
Furthermore, the length of the entire process spans a few hours, something many working individuals may not be able to afford if they do not have that time off. Maine’s Democratic caucus turnouts across the state ended up being far more impressive than expected, with lines running for blocks outside the door in some locations, notably in Portland, resulting in an impromptu change of plans in which the caucus was transformed into a primary-style process.
In fact, Maine State Senator Justin Alfond already has plans to introduce a bill to change the state’s voting process back to primaries to promote efficiency. All in all, caucusing is a unique look into the ridiculousness that is the American political process; however, turning out to vote in a caucus or primary is a spectacle in and of itself, one certainly worth participating in if one has the ability to do so, and an important reminder of the significance of having your voice heard.