Guest Column: Primaries and Caucuses in 2016

— from F. Milene Henley, Auditor, San Juan County —

– The first in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The County Auditor administers elections and voter registration in the County.

San Juan County Auditor, F. Milene Henley

San Juan County Auditor, F. Milene Henley

2016 is a special year in elections. Not only is it a Presidential election year, it’s also a year in which we are guaranteed a new President, because of the two-term limit on the office. We’ve already endured months of campaigning, debates and news coverage leading to this point. Now we’re in the swing of state Presidential primaries and caucuses, as state political parties prepare to select their candidates for the general election ballot in November.

To recognize this important year, I’ll be posting a series of articles about elections in Washington State. For the first one, I’m starting with the question on everyone’s minds right now, which is: How does Washington’s hybrid caucus-primary system work?

Primaries are elections, conducted similarly to all other elections and open to all eligible voters, in which voters weigh in on which candidates should advance to the general election. Caucuses are meetings at which members of a single party consider platform, discuss candidates, and elect delegates to later conventions. In most caucus states, the caucus system determines which Presidential candidate the parties in that state will support.

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Caucuses are true grass-roots efforts, where informed participants discuss matters face-to-face. On the other hand, only a very small number of voters participate in them, and critics say the results are controlled by party insiders and career politicians.

Elections have the advantages of a secret ballot and much greater participation, suggesting a more truly representative selection. But detractors argue that poll voters are less informed and less committed to the parties that must ultimately support the candidates.

Washington, unlike most states, has a hybrid system, in which we hold both party caucuses and a Presidential Primary.

The system works differently for Republicans than for Democrats. Republicans – who caucus on Saturday, February 20 – will discuss platforms, candidates and delegates at the caucuses, but will not determine their allocation of delegates to the candidates. Rather, they have vowed this year, for the first time, to allocate 100% of their delegates based on the results of the state’s Presidential Primary.

Democrats will caucus on Saturday, March 26. As in the past, they will allocate 100% of their national delegates based on caucuses.

Washington’s Presidential Primary will be held on May 24. The late date means that 34 states (of the 40 that conduct primaries) will hold their primaries before we do. One may legitimately ask how much influence the Washington primary can have on the outcome of the race, when it is so late in the game.

Clearly, it won’t affect the Democrats’ choice at all, since Democrats have declined to use the results of the primary. It will affect the allocation of Washington’s Republican delegates, though its influence on the national Republican scene may be limited, because of timing. For either party, it’s possible that the winning candidate will be all but confirmed by the time we get to vote.

Either way, if you want to play a part, go to the caucus of your choice and see how this time-honored political process works. You’ll also have a chance to vote in the Presidential Primary on May 24. But be aware: at the caucuses, as in the primary, you will be expected to sign an affirmation that you consider yourself to be of that party.

More on Washington elections next month.

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Guest Column: Primaries and Caucuses in 2016 — 3 Comments

  1. I just want to add a comment about the Democratic caucus, which I will also post on my earlier article about the caucus, that participants in the caucus must be registered to vote unless they are only 17. Anyone who will be 18 by election day on Nov. 8 can participate in the caucus, but otherwise one must be registered. I had mentioned prior that you didn’t have to be registered to participate in the caucus, but I have been informed by the state party that you must be registered.

    David Turnoy

  2. Thanks to our county auditor and to David for helping with the complex system we have of getting to elect a president.

  3. Thank you Milene Henley and David Turnoy for two very informative articles concerning caucuses and primaries.

    Three questions jump to my mind:
    1) What is the deadline for new voter registration in SJC for people 18 or older, if they want to participate in the caucuses? Can they register right up to the day of the caucus or primary?
    2) Where can a person register to vote in-person? Is there also a way to register online? Can website links be provided?

    The third question has many parts:
    3) Would you (and David Turnoy) please spend some time informing us and explaining to the voters about Super Delegates? A Public Education article would be helpful.
    a) What are Super Delegates? Who is eligible to be picked as one?
    b) Who decides on them and picks them or votes them in?
    c) What interests determines not only who they are, but how they represent the candidate? (ie can super delegates be “bought” by big-moneyed interests?)
    d) What percentage of WA State’s delegates are Super Delegates, and what percentage are populist-decided at the Democratic caucus?
    e) do the Republicans also have Super Delegates? How are the Republican party’s Super Delegates chosen, and by whom?
    f) Is it true that whichever candidate is granted the Super Delegates usually wins the top spot in the primaries?
    g) Can the Super Delegates be split between 2 or more candidates, or does one candidate get all of the Super Delegates? How is the winning candidate of the Super Delegates chosen?
    g) Does that mean the election is already pre-determined by the amount of Super Delegates? (if so, why call it a free election)

    Another article focusing on the breakdown of Wa. delegates (in the Democratic race) and Super Delegates would be helpful for the voters to know.

    Especially important in any case is informing the Public about whether there is a deadline to register to vote if you are a new voter age 18 or over. Thank you.