02/11/2008 05:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My First Caucus (and Last?)

"It's 7 p.m, and the Democratic caucus is in session!" the leader cried over a bullhorn.

Pandemonium erupted - cheers and war whoops - in the overcrowded school where I was attending my first caucus. I'd moved to Colorado, a caucus state, 5 years ago, but in the 2004 election, John Kerry had already been declared the nominee before our state caucuses were held. Only 200 people had showed up that year at the elementary school gym, but this year, on Super Tuesday, there were 2500. An unprecedented number!

I was excited: my first taste of democracy in action. But by the end of the evening, I would wonder if it was democracy at all.

I'd just broken my collar bone in a ski accident and torn a ligament in my knee. I was wearing a brace and couldn't drive, but nothing could stop me from attending. A friend picked me up an hour early for the five-minute drive to the school, but we had to scrounge for parking and wait in line in the freezing night just to register. So by 7, tension was high. Would Obama or Clinton get the most votes?

The caucus leader spent 20 minutes reading procedural rules, while people grumbled, "Bo-ring." One person was allowed to speak for each candidate, but they said things we'd heard a thousand times. Finally, the leader said we would proceed to voting, "which HAS to be open. No secret ballots."

We broke up into our neighborhood precincts, and mine gathered in the cafeteria. We counted ourselves off aloud: 115.

"Do you want to discuss the candidates further?" the precinct captain asked.


"Okay," she said. "All in favor of Clinton, raise your white voting card." To my shock, only 24 people raised their hands.

For Obama, 91 hands shot up. Clinton was awarded 1 delegate and Obama 4.
The lopsided numbers surprised me, because Colorado traditionally votes conservative.

"Now," the captain said, "we're going to select the delegates to the county convention." She tried to explain how the county delegates would vote for delegates to the state convention, who would choose delegates for the national convention, but half would be super delegates who are not bound to vote for the winner of the caucuses. No one, including the captain, could understand this arcane process, but it sounded time intensive and not really reflecting the will of the people.

In our precinct, we had to choose 5 delegates and 5 alternates, but instead of taking nominations and voting, the captain asked anyone who wanted to be a delegate to come forward. After ten people had sidled up to the front of the room, the captain told them to decide among themselves who would be delegates and who would be alternates. "If you need to, flip a coin."

That was it? What a let-down. "This is not 1875," a man said, as he headed for the door. In frontier times, the caucuses were full-blown town meetings, a major social event that people would ride 100 miles to attend. There was no TV, radio or internet, so they had to exchange ideas with each other. A party worker told me that Colorado and other states preserve the caucus system because it's cheaper than printing ballots and using computers, which would cost several million. With caucuses, volunteers count each person and phone in the results.

The other presumed advantage is that caucuses can stir up more energy and community spirit than voting in private. But one of my friends said she thought open voting was a violation of privacy. Most of her neighbors were passionate for Obama, she said, and if she had voted differently, "I would have been ostracized."

Pamela Dennis, one of my neighbors, disagreed. She had voted with the minority for Clinton, and said she was thrilled by the participation of so many, and the freedom everyone had to express their preferences in public. "If you're going to be intimidated by your neighbors? I say -- Get over it!"

And so say I.

More important, I would assert that it's time for a grassroots uprising to demand national popular elections, both for the nominees and the president. Let every citizen have an equal vote.