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Wednesday — February 18, 2004


Democratic Caucus Tuesday in Hailey

But how does a caucus work?

"Being Blaine County, I would hope that we would have a unanimous vote for John Kerry. I would love to encourage everyone to come to the Democratic caucus and participate in our great democratic system."

BETTY MURPHY, Blaine County Democrats chair

Express Staff Writer

As part of the logistical maze that is the process of designating a Democratic presidential candidate, Idaho Democrats will convene in town halls across the state next week to select delegates to send to the party’s state convention in June.

In Blaine County, where Democrats have part-time resident Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to pull for, a caucus will be held at the Blaine County Senior Center at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 24, the same time Democrats will meet throughout the state. Nine delegate seats and up to nine alternate seats will be up for grabs in Blaine County.

"Being Blaine County, I would hope that we would have a unanimous vote for John Kerry," said Betty Murphy, chair of the Blaine County Democrats. "I would love to encourage everyone to come to the Democratic caucus and participate in our great democratic system."

Blaine County’s nine delegates will be among 382 Democratic delegates from the state’s 44 counties. They will attend the Democratic State Convention in Pocatello from June 17-19. At the state convention, they will assist in drafting the party’s platform and repeat the process of selecting delegates to send to the party’s national convention July 26 to July 29 in Boston. Idaho will send 12 delegates and three alternates to the national convention.

Sound complicated? That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

To better understand how the primary and caucus process works, one must first look ahead to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Much like the Electoral College, in which vote-mandated "electors" ultimately select the U.S. president, the power at the national convention lies with the delegates, who choose the party’s nominee.

At the county level, citizens select delegates. At the state level, delegates select more delegates. At the national level, delegates finally choose a Democratic presidential candidate.

Each Democratic state party is allocated a number of delegates based on a formula that takes into account the state’s electoral votes and the state’s support for Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections.

Each convention delegate casts one vote for a Democratic candidate. The first candidate to receive a majority of the convention floor’s votes—2,161 this year—becomes the party’s nominee.

But the process of choosing Democratic delegates who will go to Boston is circuitous.

The actual votes cast by citizens at the county levels and by delegates at the state levels determine the allegiance of district-level delegates based on vote tallies in each of a state’s congressional districts. Based on guidelines set by the national party, each state splits delegates evenly among men and women. In Idaho, three men and three women will be selected from each of the state’s two congressional districts.

This is the key difference between Democrats and Republicans. The GOP favors "winner-take-all" elections while Democratic primaries and caucuses are proportional. Multiple Democratic candidates can earn a share of a state and district’s delegate pool, based on how they finished in each primary or caucus.

But even then, the proportionally allotted district-level delegates only make up roughly half of a state’s contingent to the party’s national convention.

The remaining delegates are comprised of pledged, at-large delegates and party leaders, called superdelegates; as well as elected officials and unpledged add-on delegates and superdelegates, called PLEOs.

Generally, each state’s district-level delegates will select at-large delegates to the party’s national convention, as well as some superdelegates.

Both at-large picks and delegate-selected superdelegates must openly commit to one candidate before this vote, and their names are subject to candidate review. Given the clear-cut allegiances of district-level delegates, the statewide vote roughly determines the allegiances, and thus the identities of pledged, at-large and superdelegate delegates.

However, the process makes it difficult to simply correlate the statewide vote to delegate totals for each candidate. Voter tallies in each congressional district create races within the race, and how those shake out ultimately determines the at-large and pledged superdelegate delegates.

And that doesn’t cover all the states’ delegates. Every state has a set of wild cards—unpledged delegates chosen to attend and vote at the national convention but not obliged to support a particular candidate. Unpledged candidates make up roughly 20 percent of all convention delegates.

Further complicating the process, candidates may drop out of the race before the convention or even before all of the pledged, at-large delegates are chosen. In those cases, the state party and the withdrawn candidate may have some influence on how those delegates vote on the convention ballot.

As a result, a candidate wraps up the nomination beforehand only if he or she garners the allegiance of a healthy majority of pledged delegates—enough to outweigh a potential revolt by unpledged delegates.

Back at the local level, Murphy said the process Tuesday evening will involve separating citizens based on which presidential candidate they support. Citizens will sign in when they show up at the caucus. The catch in the local caucus is that a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the total votes cast. If a caucus participants voting for a particular candidate amass fewer than 15 percent of the total votes cast, they are given the option to vote for another candidate.

In 2000, 68 local residents participated in the Blaine County Caucus, and 1,857 Idahoans participated in counties throughout Idaho.

Murphy said she hopes for improved caucus participation.

"I don’t know what the meeting room capacity is at the Blaine County Senior Center, but we hope we’ll overfill it," she said.


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