American democracy at work.
The quadrennial cycle of electing the highest office in the land--and perhaps the most powerful person in the world--ought to be no lighthearted task. Yet the chaotic enthusiasm of these elections we have so ingrained into cultural phenomenology suggest that facetious narrative nevertheless. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the caucus system. More messy than the primary voting system, in which a simple party vote is taken to determine a nominee, the caucus system is a rather convoluted iteration of a town-hall style meeting possible. And in our great state of Utah, on March 22nd, the Democrats and the Republicans held their party caucuses in various locations across the state. In the last few days, our mailboxes, phone lines, emails, television sets--every possible line of communication--have been flooded with political paraphernalia and small-talk stamped with the names and faces of various political candidates. Even our seemingly irrelevant homeland has weathered invasions from Trump, Sanders, Cruz, and Kasich alike. The message that they sent was clear: Utah matters.
I had the privilege of attending what became a historic Utah Democratic caucus. Held in the Little Theater at Logan High School, close to 3000 voters shuffled through the cramped room, casting their ballots for the Democratic presidential nominee. And at 5:45, fifteen minutes before polls opened, a snake of a line had formed within the halls of the English building. Volunteers passed out Clinton stickers and Sanders stickers as they traversed the line as ballots were passed back. Officials pointed and attempted to direct the hectic scene that was unfolding. “Next!” they yelled as voter after voter stormed the entrance of the room, casting their ballots. Soon after the opening, the line became a massive arc stretching from the football field to the edge of the baseball field. Even more impressive was the fact that these caucus-goers represented only one of three Cache County caucus locations. Could citizens, newly motivated by this year’s political spectacle, be gathering en masse across the valley as well?
In the last few days, our mailboxes, phone lines, emails, television sets--every possible line of communication--have been flooded with political paraphernalia and small-talk stamped with the names and faces of various political candidates. Even our seemingly irrelevant homeland has weathered invasions from Trump, Sanders, Cruz, and Kasich alike. The message that they sent was clear: Utah matters.
Perhaps the Democratic Party had underestimated their strength. The Little Theater, is, as its name suggests, little. Neat little rows of small red seats modestly ascend to their apex in the back of the room. It is enough for two classes, perhaps three, to just squeeze into the cramped rows. And in front of it all is a small grubby stage, crowded with various props, cabinets--and even a piano. It was unclear how this small space could transform to accommodate the throngs of excited voters casting their ballots. As the minutes passed, it became increasingly evident that tonight was a very unusual night for the Cache Democrats. At seven o’clock, the caucus meetings had been scheduled to begin. Yet the clock struck seven; and the crowd grew. The clock struck eight; still the crowd grew. The clock struck nine--the crowd showed no signs of thinning. It seemed as though this pocket of northern Utah had forgotten how small the Democratic Party was supposed to be in Utah.
Thousands of Democratic caucus-goers huddled together as the sun set. Lawn chairs and food were brought out. An hour later, the line had grown to include a diverse array of voters from all walks of life--the face of America. “Last time there were about 100, 200 people max,” commented Joy Anderson, a Sanders supporter, on the turnout. A caucus volunteer exclaimed that they had run out of ballots--still with thousands of potential voters in line. “We want pizza!” exclaimed some disgruntled voters in disappointment. Others merely groaned at the ever-growing line. And the myriad of unregistered first-time voters signing up clogged the already sluggish queue.
Once one penetrates the people and confusion surrounding the caucus, the structure of the event itself is rather simple by comparison. After the presidential preference balloting, voters split by precinct into groups, who elect precinct leaders and county delegates. These officials then elect the state delegates at the Cache County Democratic Convention on April 16th, and they in turn travel to Salt Lake City in the last week of April to attend the State Democratic Convention, in which the national delegates--the precious 33 delegate positions allocated to Utah out of the four-thousand-plus nationally--are selected to travel to Philadelphia in the summer, and cast their official ballots nominating Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, the two major Democratic candidates still relevant in the race for the nomination. This process is indeed convoluted--and somehow it is markedly less daunting than the chaos of yelling in the still-full hallways.
Many Utahns at the local caucus were first-time voters as students at Utah State University. Caleb Morris, a local voter, agreed that he was “feeling the Bern” today, citing the birth of a major progressive movement and the potential for wide-sweeping social reform. “I can’t imagine just complaining online [about the election,” he explained. Morris did note the necessity of the millennial vote, however, to clinch the nomination for Sanders. Jonathan Franklin, a Utah State University student and Logan High School alumnus, added that the fear of a potential presidential run by Donald Trump motivated him to caucus for Sanders. The fear of Donald Trump seemed to be a prevalent theme among the college-age voters. Colorful descriptions of Trump’s bigotous antics abounded among motivated voters: “He’s a racist [expletive],” from an anonymous voter, was one of the more generous comments of the night. On the Republican race, Sarah (last name not given) added her passionate dissent: “It’s a joke of a Republican race…[Trump] is saying all these things about respected figures--it’s not okay!” Even Sanders’ Democratic Party rival, Hillary Clinton, did not escape the caustic rhetoric. “She’s a pathological liar” was an oft-repeated opinion of Clinton repeated by many voters throughout the night. Another common complaint decried the dominance of money and “Wall Street” in politics. There did not appear to be similar negativity directed at Sanders. What else were Utah voters looking for? Salvador Rodriguez, a veteran voter, declared that his ideal candidate was whoever he believed would make the country a better place, especially with respect to labor, education, and jobs.
Many Utahns at the local caucus were first-time voters as students at Utah State University. Caleb Morris, a local voter, agreed that he was “feeling the Bern” today, citing the birth of a major progressive movement and the potential for wide-sweeping social reform.
A half-hour after polls closed, the Cache County Democratic Party Chair took to the stage. “Let me put this in perspective--two years ago, in this room, in this area, we had about 110 people. We passed that by a factor of 20 or 30 tonight,” he announced to energetic cheers from the crowd. That estimate would put the number of attendees of this particular Cache County Democratic Caucus at up to 3300, which was deemed a record turnout by voters and volunteers alike. There were still an estimated 600 people waiting for their ballots, according to the party. The party had hastily scrapped their plans for county convention delegate speeches in an effort to save time, much to the chagrin of some of the more enthusiastic supporters.
In the ennui before the start of the precinct elections, Jeff Dransfield took to the stage, accompanied by a Sanders-loving pianist, performing numbers such as “Imagine,” “Let It Be,” and “Win, Bernie, Win,” an original composition, in an informal impromptu concert. Perhaps one of the more ardent Sanders supporters of the night, he led members of the caucus in sporty cheers and chants. “He’s the first person who has given voice to people that are struggling...for people that can’t stand up for themselves,” he explained. “Everyone’s feeling the Bern.” Dransfield cited Sander’s passionate message as a primer for wide-sweeping political involvement. “I used to be a normal guy too--now I have a voice.” Dransfield voiced his disillusionment with the Republican Party--in his words, a party of bigotry, hatred, and violence--something that antagonized what he believed were American values. “We want love and peace,” he offered. “[The elections] are bought and paid for by the corporations and lobbyists.” He then continued to wander the Little Theater, performing “Win, Bernie, Win” on his ukulele to the amusement of voters. It was not until 9:30, over an hour after polls had closed, that the volunteers were able to begin the ballot count across the hall. The voters who elected to remain in the Little Theater then split into precincts to elect their precinct party officials.
"We Created a page and it got, like, 250 likes. It's lots of work -- lots of organization -- but it's worthwhile."
Volunteers on both sides of the race had much to say about the historic race. Jayce Paul, a Utah State political science student volunteering for the Sanders campaign, was a new face in the political world, handing out Bernie 2016 stickers to the thousands in line. Paul was mostly involved in social media. “We created a page...and it got like 250 likes,” he proudly admitted. “It’s lots of work--lots of organization, but it’s worthwhile.” Paul also had some interesting insights regarding the implications of the voter turnout, citing the unexpectedly high percentage of independent voters caucusing with the Democrats. He explained that independent voters were the largest block of voters in the United States, and that tonight’s caucus would be a test of overall electability in the general election.
On the Clinton campaign, Lily Palmer, also a Utah State political science student, was new too to the campaign experience. Palmer was exposed to politics at a young age because of her father’s political involvement, and when she came to Utah State University, she jumped at the chance to join the USU Democrats. Through various emails and meetings, Palmer became involved with the Clinton campaign in Utah, doing phone-banking and door-to-door calls in the weeks preceding the Utah caucus. Hailing from California, a traditionally blue state, she expressed moderate surprise that Utah would have such a Democratic turnout--something she would expect instead from California.
It was not until 10:30 when a lull in the democratic process emerged. Yet the caucus volunteers remained strong, preparing for a long night of vote-counting, impressively showing no sign of exhaustion. For the Cache Democratic Vice Chair, Brenda Smith, the caucus experience was new. Although she had been a registered Democrat since the age of 18, this election cycle was her first management experience from within the party itself, having been involved in the party itself for the last three years.. Through party emails, she was introduced to the LDS Democratic Caucus, and consequently joined, soon becoming the county party vice chair. Although it was her first time managing a local presidential election, she did note that a primary system would be much simpler. As for her thoughts on the turnout, she noted a KSL poll released just days before the caucus, pitting Trump and Clinton in a hypothetical election scenario--a poll that showed Clinton leading by two points. ‘Utah’s going blue if Trump’s the nominee,” she said, smiling.
At the time of writing, Utah had been declared a landslide victory for Sanders with a near 80-20 vote split, according to the New York Times. Yet at the end of the night, results from Arizona and Idaho meant that his national prospects still seemed bleak, according to major news outlets including NBC. Although Sanders greatly exceeded expectations by scoring more delegates overall than Clinton, his path to the nomination remains narrow in the months to come. Data journalism giant FiveThirtyEight still noted that Clinton remained on track to clinch the nomination--and doubted the eventual impact of Sanders’ historic night on the 22nd. But the ever-Berning Dransfield was no less fervent in his support for Sanders. Even if Sanders did not win, he confidently expressed his belief that the new grassroots progressive insurgency would continue to thrive. “[He’s] the beginning...it’s [just] the beginning of a movement,” he concluded. “Bernie Sanders is the first to tell you that.”