Caucus Confusion

This Two-Step Had All the Wrong Moves

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

LAREDO, Tex., March 5 -- Roberto Hereda came to United High School on Tuesday night to help elect a president, but instead found an irritated mob that reminded him of "a prison riot."

About 150 would-be Democratic caucusgoers stood outside in the South Texas wind, still waiting for their caucus to begin two hours after the scheduled start time. Some people banged on the windows of the cafeteria and chanted, "We want to vote!" and "We're getting cheated!"

Desperate to control the crowd, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) stood on a chair and propped an old Behringer speaker onto his shoulder. "The people in charge don't know what they're doing, so please be patient," he said through a microphone. "Honestly, we could be here all night."

After hearing that, Hereda scooped up his 4-year-old daughter and walked to his car." I wanted to caucus, but it's too much incompetence," he said. "I've never seen such a mess."

Similar disasters unfolded at many of the 8,000-plus caucuses in Texas. Democratic Party officials struggled to accommodate an estimated 1.1 million voters who participated in the second part of what became known "the Texas two-step" to choose 67 of the 193 delegates the state will send to the Democratic National Convention in August.

To participate in the caucus, voters had to have already cast their ballots in the primary, but that was just the beginning. In Houston, police monitored unruly crowds frustrated by three-hour delays. In Dallas, one caucus grew too big for its venue and conducted proceedings outside using car headlights. In Brownsville, confused organizers called a hotline for caucus instructions while a quarter of their voters left. Some were delayed because organizers forgot to bring pens and paper; others struggled to report results because of a jammed call center.

The outcome is still uncertain. As of late Wednesday, party officials had counted the votes in about 40 percent of the precincts. That gave Obama about 56 percent of the caucus delegates to Clinton's 44 percent, and will mitigate his loss in the primary.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign threatened legal action, and voters across the state described caucuses as a start-to-finish disaster.

"We knew this process was going to be hard, but I never thought it could be this hard," said Maria Sosa, an Obama supporter who caucused in Laredo. "We spent a week preparing. I'm not sure a month would have been enough."

Organizers here in South Texas described their task as particularly daunting: In an impoverished, predominantly Hispanic region in which less than 10 percent of registered voters usually cast a ballot, how do you tempt people back to the polls for a second time after dinner?

The solution, at least at United High School, took the form of a rowdy street festival. To entice people into the school parking lot on the north end of the city, an eight-piece mariachi band played while some tailgaters guzzled Coronas in the back of a pickup truck. An Obama supporter offered free tacos for to anyone willing to join him at the caucus.

"Even if somebody wasn't planning to vote," said Joaquin Fernandez, a guitar player in the mariachi band, "who's going to resist a party?"

By 7:15 p.m., the caucus's alleged start time, more than 250 people filled the parking lot outside United High School. As they made their way toward the school cafeteria, Hereda peered inside and immediately recognized a problem: More than 100 people were still waiting in line to vote, and caucusgoers could not enter until voting finished.

All across Texas, organizers were overwhelmed by a voting demand that had outgrown the state's infrastructure. The state Democratic Party ran short on volunteer captains for its precincts, so the first person to arrive at a caucus became a sometimes-unprepared chairman. At an event in Dallas with more than 1,000 people, a paper shortage forced voters to sign in on scrap paper. Some caucuses did not end until long after 11 p.m.

Even those rare caucuses that managed to run on schedule experienced turbulence. Both campaigns complained that, at times, the opponent's supporters fought unscrupulously to gain control of the "envelope": a package of materials that allowed someone to serve as the temporary chairman. Clinton's campaign also accused Obama supporters of locking doors early to prevent the opposition from entering.

"When nobody really understands what's happening, there's no way to tell if everything is going right," said Maria Escamilla, a Clinton supporter who caucused in Laredo. "I was at a small caucus, maybe 25 people, but nobody knew how to do the math, so it took forever."

Yet when Escamilla finished, she called a friend at United High School who was still waiting outside. Officials finally opened the doors to the cafeteria at about 9 p.m., when almost half of the crowd had left. Those who remained filtered into the cafeteria and sat at wooden tables. About 20 toddlers ran across the tiled floor as organizers passed clipboards and asked voters to sign in.

More than 25 Obama voters stood on the right side of the room. About 100 Clinton supporters stood to the left. Four men stood on the cafeteria stage and counted the two groups. "We're going to move as quickly as we can," one counter said. "Remember, this caucus is only for people who voted from Precinct 345."

About two dozen people raised a hand in sudden protest. They had voted at a different precinct, but were instructed to caucus here.

Finally, after a few minutes of deliberation, the counters turned to the crowd with an unpopular verdict.

They would have to split the caucuses in two and start again.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company