Nebraska Caucus: Omayhem

A dispatch from my brother Dan from today's caucus in Omaha:

Notes on the Nebraska Democratic Caucus - Douglas County

After attending the Barack Obama rally at the Omaha Civic Auditorium on Thursday, it was clear to me that the turnout would be quite high for the first-ever caucus for Nebraska Democrats today. The chairman of the Douglas County Democratic Party had an auditorium of over 7,000 people chanting in unison "Nine Fifteen!" when he asked when we should arrive at caucus sites, and "Ten O'Clock!" when he asked when caucusing would begin.

So I arrived this morning at my caucus site, Monroe Middle School, at 9:15. Already there was a line that stretched for about a block outside the building. Soon, a second line formed for those who wanted to register to vote or who wanted to change their registration in order to participate. People were orderly and calm, standing in slow-moving lines in below-freezing weather.

Once inside the building, I got into another line according to the first letter of my last name. I was in the M-Pi line (the longest one). There was an A-C line (quick quick), a D-H line (medium, confused), and a Q-Z line (nobody). "I" through "L"? Who knows.

While in this line, I again read Faulkner's Nobel Prize address, my own little audacity of hope: "... the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. ... I decline to accept the end of man."

Once I reached the head of the line, I was asked to find my name and voter number in the voter roll. Then I was to fill out a blue slip (mine was a photocopied piece of paper, others had printed cards) with my name, address, presidential preference, voter number, phone number and e-mail address (yeah right on those last two). Pay attention to the blue slip.

(One interesting item: my next-door neighbor registered to vote, got his blue card and entered the caucusing auditorium before I did, and he arrived twenty minutes after me. I have been a registered Democrat in Douglas County since I was eighteen.)

Once I completed my blue slip, around 10:15, I was directed to the auditorium, where I was told: if you're for Obama, stand in this hallway outside the auditorium; if you're for Hillary there's still room in there. Excuse me.

I stood in the hallway for a while and caught up with some friends I hadn't seen in a while. There was a man talking on a megaphone inside the auditorium, and we could see him but couldn't hear him. Word was being passed from person to person that there had been a mistake, that someone had been collecting the blue slips but wasn't supposed to be, so if you had given up your blue slip, you'd better get it back.

I went into the auditorium at this point to check it out, and it wasn't too full, there was just a large open space in the middle of the room separating the Hillary people (well-organized, tons of signs) from the Barack masses (young and old, lots of them, including every black person in the room). I remarked to a friend how strange it was that there was no public address system in the auditorium. He said that half an hour earlier, there had been a wireless microphone being used, but that it had gone missing, and that a guy made an announcement on the megaphone to please please if you had this microphone, give it back.

The line outside the building, visible from inside the auditorium, still snaked around the school. We were told, barely audibly through the megaphone, that once we got all these people in here we would caucus. And we were reminded that this was the first time we have ever done this so bear with us and thank you for your patience. The local newspaper web site reported that someone at my caucus location said he'd participated in walkathons that were better organized.

Questions like, "any idea when we can leave?" and "can I just turn in my blue slip and go home?" were met with answers like "no idea" and "if you leave you forfeit your vote."

So most people stuck around, as far as I could tell. Another announcement was made that if you had given up your blue slip, you should go back out to the lobby and re-claim it. I don't know how the process back out in the lobby worked, because I had not given up my blue slip, and hadn't been asked to give it up. Once during the confusion, it was announced that you should not give up your blue slip "until the second allotment," whatever that meant.

At around 11:00, an announcement was made that we'd probably be there another hour before we could caucus. An announcement was made that we would now be caucusing in the parking lot (still below freezing). Another microphone, though not the wireless one, was found and used for these announcements. The most curious thing to me was that various people were making announcements, and their claims to authority were not vague so much as they were completely unstated. The one elected official I recognized was Tom White, the state senator for our district. He made the announcement about the parking lot, and the final announcement about the emergency rule and the cardboard boxes (more on that later).

A very nice and seemingly well-informed lady told me that it's against the rules to caucus outside because anybody could just walk into a parking lot without being registered or anything. Good point. This lady worried that so many rules were being broken that the caucus wouldn't count.

The Douglas County Democrats made it hard on themselves in a few ways. One is that we caucused by legislative district, so there were only fifteen caucus sites in Douglas County (basically, Omaha). By contrast, there are 53 caucus sites this evening in Lancaster County (Lincoln area), which has a much smaller population. In Omaha, instead of going to one's regular polling place, a voter had to find out where to caucus from a web site. Instead of regular election workers and equipment, it was volunteer-run and ad hoc. It was a new and confusing process, at too few locations, at a busy time of day for most people (a Democrat friend of mine caught a flight at noon, another Democrat friend opens her bar at that time - no way either one could have participated at my caucus site).

Many people with small children were in attendance. There were also many senior citizens. Most had been standing, at least part of the time in the cold, for two hours. There were chairs in the auditorium, but not many, and plenty of people never made their way into the auditorium because they had been told it was full. Many young people sat on the floor or on the stage. Instead of any kind of back-and-forth about candidates or a platform, there were announcements and corrections of those announcements and pleas for patience.

Finally there was an announcement for those few people who hadn't reclaimed their blue slips after giving them up to (let's hope) a good-intentioned but misguided worker. Each name was read three times, "Bueller... Bueller... Bueller." Voices in the crowd shouted "They Left!," and it was clear that some had, but really not many.

Then Tom White made the final announcement, something like, 'we are invoking an emergency rule, as have other precincts, and instead of the caucus, the way you will make your preference known is that outside, there will be three boxes: one for Hillary Clinton, one for Barack Obama, and one for those who are uncommitted. There will be one Clinton campaign representative and one Obama campaign representative standing by each box. Please be patient and form an orderly line to go outside, drop your all-important blue slip into the right box, and then you can go home.'

The one heartening thing was that during the final announcement, the applause-o-meter for Hillary was at about 2 and for Barack it was at about 12.

So everyone filed outside and dropped the precious blue slip into one of FOUR cardboard boxes sitting on the ground. Regular old boxes, improvised and unsecured. There were people watching you drop your slip, but who they were and what they wanted was undeclared. The reason there were four boxes was that the line for Obama was so long that they found another box and so there were two lines and two boxes for Obama.

So I think I participated in Nebraska's first-ever Democratic Party Caucus. It took about two and a half hours. I feel sorry for any first-time voter who thinks that's how it always (sort of) works. I hope they don't require my e-mail address to make my blue slip count. Oh yeah, and how the hell are they going to count those things? I didn't stick around to find out.