Caucus Math 101: Bring a Calculator

Don Ray, co-chairman of the Ringgold County Democrats, gets a math review before the Jan. 3 caucus.
Don Ray, co-chairman of the Ringgold County Democrats, gets a math review before the Jan. 3 caucus. (By Gary Fandel)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

CRESTON, Iowa, Dec. 16 -- Training for the Iowa caucuses combines several of the miseries of adolescence, like studying for a driver's license and an algebra test and the SAT -- only this time in the company of cheerful, middle-aged Iowans in a senior citizens home.

"Okay, this is a big one," Jeanette Ward, a field director for the Iowa Democratic Party, warns everyone. "If we can get this math part, I'll give you guys a break."

Oh, no! The math! The crazy math. The cookies beckon from the back of the room. The field director begins her calculations: something about 100 multiplied by 15 percent and a fraction, and rounding up. Got it?

"Wait, wait, wait, go over that," says a woman in a reindeer vest. Her name is Marcia Fulton and she has never been to a caucus before, but she'll help oversee three of them on Jan. 3.

The field director tries again: "Twenty-seven times .15 equals 4.05," she says. "Which rounds up to five." Got it? No? Well . . . never mind.

In Iowa, where the campaigning is up close and personal, the democracy is terribly complicated.

Much has been written about the Democratic caucuses and how they work -- how they're not like the primaries of other states, how you have to show up and stand in a corner for your candidate and then maybe stand in another corner if your candidate isn't "viable" (meaning, said candidate doesn't have at least 15 percent support among people in the room). And how each of the 1,781 precincts has a different number of delegates to award, and the number of delegates a candidate gets is proportional to the number of people who show up at a high school gym on a freezing night in January to stand in corners.

Hence the crazy math.

And we haven't even gotten to the various envelopes. And the filling in of bubbles. And the pink and yellow forms. And the fact that, once in a while, there's a tie, so folks have to toss a coin.

Those of us who long suspected that American democracy isn't quite as pure as our elementary school history books said will feel vindicated learning about the Iowa caucuses, which are about as byzantine an election process as can be. The caucuses are democracy via bureaucracy, a bizarre system that began with Iowa's statehood in 1846 but has been revised since. (It is only the Democratic caucuses that work this way, with standing in corners and algebra; the Republicans will caucus on the same night, but their process works more like a straw poll.)

All of which is why the 27 people here, many of whom will be chairing caucuses in their precincts, are brushing up on the rules -- or, in the case of Fulton, 66, a retired schoolteacher who spent most of her adult life in Florida, learning it for the first time. (Fulton pronounces herself "scared to death.")

There are thick packets given out at the beginning of the training session, which include formulas and something called a Caucus Mathematics Worksheet. (Sample formula: "The number of members in a preference group times the total number of delegates to be awarded, divided by the number of eligible caucus attendees.")

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