THE BLOG

Confusion Rampant Over Texas 'Primacaucus' Rules

The Texas Two-Step is not a primary and a caucus. It is a primary and a "precinct convention." This terminology, alone, has Texans scratching their heads. As a questioner from Dallas TV said in a conference call with the Obama Campaign Friday, "we are getting calls into the station; people are confused. Is there going to be anything else on election night?" You'd think Texans would know by now. But ask anybody with the Iowa and Nevada Democratic parties, and they will tell you that voters have to be given instructions over and over again.

Last week, as has been reported, the Texas Democratic Party held a conference call with the Clinton and Obama campaigns to go over the rules for the Texas primary conventions. At this time, lawyers for the Clinton Campaign stated that the campaign reserved the right to challenge the rules. The Clinton Campaign has been criticized, both by the Texas Dems and by the Obama Campaign, for adopting this stance. However, the lawyers are only doing their job in keeping options open. The scuttlebutt is that the Clinton Campaign's objection to the rules is the timing of the release of the results of the primary conventions. This well may be a strategy, for if Hillary Clinton wins the Texas popular vote, she can ride that momentum for a few days until a delayed release of tentative results for the precinct conventions (and anything until the Texas state convention in June is only a ballpark figure).

However, the Clinton Campaign could have a further strategy: challenging the entire Texas Democratic primary convention process because it is voter suppression. If the Clintons decide to adopt a scorched earth strategy to stay in the race, the campaign could go to court to have all the Texas "caucus" delegate totals discarded. This would be a double front: attempting to seat Florida delegates while trying to throw out 67 Texas delegates. There are many lines of argument for the Texas Two-Step as voter suppression, but surely the most significant is that non-English speakers are at a disadvantage in a system that, as you will see, prides itself on parity. Whereas in the primary part of the two-step there is help at every stage for Spanish (and Vietnamese) speakers, from polling signs to ballots to call-in translators, none of these are available for the primary conventions. The call-in translators, for example, will leave work at 7 PM on Tuesday. According to Gerry Birnberg, the Harris County Democratic Chairman, "the language of the Texas Democratic Party is English," and although there is a translation of the party rules into Spanish , the conventions are "to be conducted in English." In more subtle ways as well, the Texas elections favor native English speakers, as well as people who are better educated and wealthier, as the details of the Texas Two-Step show.

One fact that the Texas Democratic Party has not gotten out there that also bedeviled Nevada is where to go. Every Texan must go to the convention location for the precinct in which he or she is registered. Many people, however, took advantage of the ten-day early voting period, when in the big cities one could vote at any one of many venues, at his or her convenience. Now each Texan must switch gears and think "precinct." These precinct locations can be downloaded--but what if you don't have a computer? This has been the challenge for the Clintonites here in Harris County: how to get all the mothers and grandmothers, many of whom don't even have phones, out on Tuesday night? It helps that many of the Hispanic neighborhoods in Houston are tight-knit communities; but still it is going to be an effort.

Another problem is voter ID. At a caucus training session I attended yesterday, the leader said proudly, "in Texas, we don't have voter ID, thank God." For the first time, I see that voter ID is a relative matter, because from a Californian's viewpoint, Texas does have voter ID. In my state, for people whose names are on the rolls of registered voters, it's an honor system. Give your name to the volunteer at the sign-in table, scribble a signature next to your name printed out on the voter roll and then vote. A Texan, however, must present some form of identification, preferably a voter registration card but even an electric bill will do, in order to get a ballot. There is an extra step at the primary convention as well, and this step could be a determining factor in suppressing turnout for the so-called caucuses.

A Texan must prove that he or she has already voted in the primary in order to be eligible to participate in the precinct convention. A voter is supposed to get a stamp on his or her voter registration, or at least a paper receipt, after voting. This proof of voting should be shown at convention sign-in. However, during early voting in Harris County, many people didn't get stamps or receipts; many more didn't know to keep them. So most people likely will be showing up to caucus without proof of voting. A misapprehension making the rounds of Hispanic Houston is that without the voter stamp or the piece of white paper, a person cannot caucus.

Without proof of voting, people can caucus, but they will have to be looked up on the voter rolls before they can sign in. This process is going to take some time. Additionally, anybody whose name can't be found on the voter rolls will have to particpate "provisionally" at the convention. If a precinct has any provisional voters, the math for the delegate apportionment will have to be done twice, with and without the provisionals. (Actually, it's more complicated than that--but your eyes are already glazing, right?)

The length of time it will take to establish proof of voting, added to the fact that anybody standing in line at 7 PM to cast a vote in the primary will have a chance to do so, means that at many precincts the caucus part won't get under way until 9 PM or even later. Furthermore, Texas rules state that there can be no precinct conveners in the voting room until all primary business has ended. At some locations, this will pose a logistical problem if there is a large turnout for the conventions.

The Texas primary conventions were never meant to accommodate large numbers of attendees and potentially to choose the Democratic party nominee for president. The system was designed to encourage participation in the party, to cultivate volunteerism and finally, at the state level going on to the national convention, to showcase Texas Democrats as a perfect amalgam of gender and ethnicity. Because the latter is a major goal of the conventions (indeed one can read the party rules as "the major goal), at the next level party leaders can choose delegates based on sex and race. Whoever designed the system never considered the consequences if the conventions ever were to be rigorously contested. Therefore, something as simple as choosing a chair for a precinct convention becomes problematic in a situation where an Obama precinct captain and a Clinton precinct captain are going to be fighting, so to speak, to the death.

The Clinton Campaign is instructing Hillary's supporters to arrive at the precinct conventions by 6:30 PM. A day or so ago, that time was 6:45 PM. Last week, the time was 7 PM. The plan many Hispanic women have described to me is a strategy of making sure that a Hillary supporter is always the first person at the end of the line for primary voting. When the primary closes, that person will "grab the chair." However, the Texas Democratic Party rules state that Roberts Rules of Order are to be used to elect a chair and a secretary, as the first two pieces of convention business. So there is some confusion here in the Clinton camp. Certainly, there is going to be a pell-mell rush for the primary room and a scramble to take control of the convention.

After the chair and secretary are elected, then sign-in can begin. Harris County Dems are expecting twice the usual number of attendees. But who knows how many will show? The people who did early voting may, in the end, not be motivated to find their precincts and head out on a Tuesday evening. On the other hand, as in Iowa, at some locations five times the usual number of caucusers may turn up. Sign-in will then take a very long time (remember that most attendees will have to be checked against the voter rolls), and Harris County Dems are already prepared for some conventions to go on until midnight. After sign-in, attendees can leave; at this point, surely most people will. The rest of the evening is devoted to figuring out the math, from the sign-in sheets, for Clinton v. Obama (and let me just add that at the mock caucus I attended, the secretary found some of the sign-in preferences illegible). The next step is electing delegates to the county convention, based on that math. The final business of the night is the introduction of resolutions, which will be sent on to the next convention level, and undoubtedly there will be many a "whereas" for abolishing the Texas primary convention process altogether.

Did I mention math? Texas Dems are touting this as "easy math." Like in Iowa, however, there is a point where the chair has to "round up," and a point for "rounding down" from a fraction. I don't think every chair is going to find this all that easy. And there is the matter of counting the provisional voters with the others and then separately, several different ways, at several different stages.

Having witnessed caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, I make several predictions. There will be chaos at some precincts. There will be rule disputes. Different precincts will handle voting in very different ways--screw what the Texas Democratic Party says. In fact, I predict that at some precincts convention sign-in sheets will be filled out even as the primary is still going on and well before a convention chair is elected--even though this is clearly against the rules. If the media call Texas for either candidate Tuesday night, this call will be known at some precincts and will affect those conventions. (When the AP called Nevada for Clinton, the caucuses I was watching were only just counting their first alignments.) Any irregularities can be challenged at the state convention. Long before June, however, likely there will be complaints made to both campaigns and to the press. In Nevada, the Obama Campaign collected a thousand instances of possible voter suppression and irregularity.

Then there is caucus rustling. In Texas, delegates pledged to one candidate have a way of coming out of the county convention or the state convention pledged to the opponent. The Hillary volunteers in Harris County have a fear, almost to paranoia, that those dread Obamacans, who have magically won eleven caucus states (twelve counting Nevada) will infiltrate the Clinton ranks and do just this. But the Texas Democratic rules are clear: a delegate is free to switch candidates. An added twist is that a Texan can vote in the primary for one candidate and in the caucus for another. Therefore, it is possible that early voters who caucus, if they are aware of this freedom (arguable), may change their votes.

Both campaigns have had only a few weeks to find and to train precinct captains. Harris County alone has over 800 precinct conventions. Ideally, each campaign will send someone to every one of these locations. And what about the rest of Texas? This is a daunting task. If Obama wins the popular vote Tuesday night, interest in the Texas Two-Step will quickly fade. The primary convention outcome will be a short-column, inside-page story come June. If Hillary Clinton wins the Texas popular vote, however, a major battle over the primary conventions will ensue.