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Christine Whelan

Christine Whelan

Posted: January 3, 2008 11:36 PM

How I Almost Committed Election Fraud


Caucusing can be confusing. But I was giddy all day about this opportunity to make a difference and shape national politics. I mean, how complicated can caucusing really be?

As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I'm new here, but I understand that Iowans have a big responsibility to serve as a screening instrument for the nation. So I was prepared: I learned about viability and I understood how delegates would be elected. I'd met many of the presidential candidates. I packed bottles of water and snacks in case things ran late.

Just know from the start I was prepared and taking things seriously, OK?

When I arrived at my caucus site -- a local high-school -- I had to register to vote. I filled out my form, chatting with the nice folks, and got a little blue ticket. Thanking them for their help, and proclaiming how easy the system was, I followed the crowd.

Next, a man sitting near a table of deli sandwiches asked for my blue ticket, and handed me a light blue-lined index card with a red number on it. I walked into a large auditorium, and searched for my friends. Funny, I thought, we were supposed to be in the cafeteria. Maybe they made a last-minute switch because they anticipated a big crowd?

After about 10 minutes -- nearing the 7 p.m. start-time for caucusing -- I approached a group of about 14 men and women sitting on the stage under a handwritten sign that read "uncommitted." Weren't they uncomfortable with nearly 400 people staring at them from the crowd, seeking their votes? Not really. From this vantage point, one 50-year-old woman said, she could see how the wind would blow: She was keeping an open mind. Fascinating.

And, by the way, I asked, weren't we supposed to be in the cafeteria?

That's when I realized I was in the wrong precinct. Panicked, I ran back for my stuff, just as the precinct captain announced over the loud speaker that it had come to his attention that there was someone from another precinct -- me -- who needed to leave before voting began. With 450 pairs of eyes on me, I made a mad dash for the door, sprinted down the hall to the cafeteria, and made it into my precinct just as the doors were closing and the final slips of white paper with hand-written numbers on them were being given out.

I wasn't off to a great start, but I made it.

I was so prepared to be a good caucus-goer. I just hadn't thought that I'd get tripped up because I was in the wrong room.

Anyway, it was well over 80 degrees in the school cafeteria and the round plastic lunch stools were occupied. Under campaign banner were several tables with Oreo cookies, water and juice on offer, in exchange for my vote.

As the precinct captain began the evening's business, he asked all first-time caucusers to stand. Nearly half the room rose up, to much applause. It seems that our precinct wasn't uncommon: Record numbers of voters were reported in many precincts statewide. Still, we're only talking 200,000 or 250,000 people all in.

To translate that into New York terms, there are more people on the Upper West Side than caucused in Iowa tonight.

To translate that into election terms, every vote really does count, and thank heavens I made it to the right room.

This isn't a dress-up event. Think ski parkas and Ugg boots. I'm fairly sure I was the only woman wearing heels (it was icy out, but it's an event, and New Yorkers dress up for events, right?) perhaps because caucusing can be a contact sport: We got into pods of five for the first count, then filed in and out of the room for the second count, then gathered again, and filed in and out the doors some more - all while two 19-year-old volunteers from the Chicago suburbs did their best to keep track of the moving math.

With 288 folks in the room, each candidate had to have a minimum of 44 people standing in their corner to be viable. The counting wasn't high-tech, but it was effective. After the first count, many candidates weren't viable, and the negotiations began.

I spoke with a 60-year-old woman who said she's been caucusing "since she was born." She explained that these negotiations are friendly -- in a small town, everyone works together to get along because you'll see your neighbor at church, at school sports games, at the supermarket. You can disagree, but you have to do it in a manner that indicates you are still a community, you're still neighbors.

After a few more in-and-out-the-door head-counts, the votes were tallied and our precinct elected four delegates, with 27 undecided voters.

So who did I vote for? If you'd been there, you'd know, but since you weren't, I'll retain the little bit of privacy about my vote still afforded to me.

And if you were one of those 450 people who saw a girl in a gold puffer coat dash out the door of your high school auditorium precinct tonight, it's great to meet you. Yeah, I'm the new girl, from New York?

Follow Christine Whelan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christinewhelan