REPORTERS’ NOTEBOOK: Caucasian Caucus-ness

By on March 15, 2016

Does GOP stand for Grossly Over Procedural? (Or, five hours of my life I’ll never get back?)

160316ReportersNotebookJACKSON HOLE, WY – Attending the Republican Party Caucus on March 12 was not particularly high on my to-do list.

I found myself in a swath of men with the square strut of affected importance, and women who match their clothing to their political allegiance: ruby red. It was a first name basis, white-collar group of Grand Old Party Teton conservatives.

The running tally of Reagan references landed somewhere in the dozens if you count the quote cards at every table. I may never understand the lionization. But I can get behind his pride in democracy. Reagan once wrote, “Democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.” There’s always been this tension in our government: Are we a democracy or are we a republic? For the most part, we’re a republic. We elect philosopher-kings to represent us because that’s their job: to know the system, to be morally superior, to be platonic ideals.

But what happens when our philosopher kings aren’t good people? In all honesty, I was mildly shocked when some of the delegates at the Teton County caucus offered unapologetic displays of religious bigotry. In one instance the microphone-enhanced melodramatic speech began like this: “I’ve studied the Quran, and you know what I’ve learned? Islam is our enemy. Not part of Islam; Islam is our enemy.” The rhetoric was dished by a whitewashed 60-something. He continued to say that he did not think the religion of Islam, and ostensibly its worshippers, should have any part in the future of the United States.

And what really pains me is these delegates are embarrassingly under-representative of what the Republican Party should strive to be. Saturday’s caucus was composed of an unelected delegation of mostly rich white people. And those WASPs, who game the system well enough to be present, elected John Baker (hashtag: richwhitemale) to represent the county at the Republican National Convention. When Joe Schloss (#richwhitemale) lost after the third run-off of votes, he made a joke about saving himself three grand.

That’s because, as (now former) Chairwoman JuliAnne Forrest estimated, it will cost several thousand dollars to attend the RNC after the flights, food, hotels, and fees are calculated. Based on median income in Teton County, that would cost a citizen at least three weeks’ wages. I’ll venture to say most of us couldn’t afford the nomination to represent the county. (Editor’s note: Forrest announced Monday she would resign from her position as chair in light of Trump’s win in Teton County.)

What’s more, there are other costs. The process is long. Who on earth has five hours to vote on a delegate? Other than selecting a national delegate, the caucus is also a time when county delegates get to work on county bylaws and vote on the language of the Republican Party platforms, which is cool. That’s the community having a real hand in politics, but it’s also incredibly limiting. If I wasn’t being paid to be there, there’s no way I could have afforded to sit through the five-hour process. And I think that’s true for a lot of us. In this tourist town, taking that much time off from work on a Saturday is not feasible.

But even if you did have the money laying around, if you are registered as anything but a Republican or a Democrat, you don’t get a say. Both Republicans and Democrats use the closed caucus system in Wyoming, leaving more than 10 percent of its registered voters disenfranchised. There are currently about 201,000 registered voters in Wyoming. Around 22,500 of those did not register with either of the two primary parties.

Delegate Wally Ulrich told me he was saddened that there wasn’t an opportunity for independents to have a say, but that he still believed the caucus was the best system for Wyoming. Being geographically sparsely populated, Wyoming’s citizens get the opportunity to really come together and be involved in the system, he said.

It makes sense to me why those who understand the system like it. If you’re a delegate your vote really, really counts. In a standard primary, your vote is one out of more than 4,700 registered Teton County Republicans. In a caucus system, if you make delegate, that influence is bettered to about one in 60.

So that’s my real problem: the caucus system is elitist and confusing. I sat through all five hours of voter run-offs trying to figure out how exactly these people of Teton County were granted the right to endorse a Donald Trump future. I literally enlisted the help of my father, who teaches political science. He spent at least 15 minutes trying to explain it to me. It took additional help from former Representative Keith Gingery before I felt like I had the information on lock.

In a later discussion, Gingery told me he thought the votes had gone to Trump because the delegates actually understood the convoluted caucus system well enough to use it to their advantage. A political system should not be so confusing it can be used to manipulate the results.

Seriously, here is a breakdown of how a caucus works.

From start-to-finish it takes a month and a half. On March 1, a very select group of people in each precinct of Teton County who actually fathom the caucus system got together and decided who would represent the precincts at this year’s county caucus. These are mostly power players in the community, political wonks, or very bored retirees.

Then, on March 12, the delegates that were selected get together to vote on an even more select group of people. One of the votes they take is for Teton County’s national delegate that will go to the Republican National Convention in July, where Republicans decide on their Presidential nominee. But not even that is simple. Every four years, the delegate for Sublette County and Teton County is flip-flopped. This year Teton County gets to select the delegate and Sublette County selects the alternate, but four years from now it will be Sublette County’s turn to send the delegate and our turn to send the alternate. This is true for all 23 counties in Wyoming, leaving us with 12 delegates and 11 alternates that are designated votes.

But Wyoming gets 29 delegates. I know, right? You’re probably asking yourself: Where do the rest come from? I know I was. Well, there is another round of nominations and another round of voting at the March 13 caucus that selects a series of delegates that the counties will send to Casper on April 14 to 16. These state delegates then nominate and elect another series of delegates that will add an additional 14 national delegates to those going to the RNC. Now we’re at a total of 26 delegates. So add to those three more delegates that are auto-generated from Wyoming Republican leaders that no one votes on at all. And voila, 29 delegates! (I swear this is true).

After that crazy day and this absurd explanation of the process, my hope is people in Teton County will understand the system a little better, and maybe some of you will now be able to have your voice heard.

Wyoming is one of only 13 states that still uses the antiquated caucus system. The other 40 states use variations of the primary. Primaries give individuals a voice and strip the power from the very select few the caucus system has uplifted. Primaries don’t cost $3,000 or five hours of your life. You don’t have to wear red or blue, because primaries use secret ballots and no one, not even once, gets a captive audience to whom they can give a caustic spiel of their casual bigotry.

And it’s pretty straightforward. March 12 could have looked a lot like this for Republicans:

Box A: Marco Rubio (robot about to lose in his home state)

Box B: Ted Cruz (oily televangelist)

Box C: Donald Trump (racist demagogue)

Box D: Other (literally, put any name here)

And then you’re done. You cast your vote. And not one of the 4,700 Republican votes would have counted more than any other. PJH

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