What we can learn about the Ada County caucus from the last man in line

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Volunteers stand at the end of the line at the March 22 Ada County Caucus, two hours after doors were scheduled to close at the event. At its peak, the line to get into the caucus was a mile long. (Melissa Davlin/Idaho Public Television)

Benjamin Johnson didn’t mean to be one of the last people in line.

He, like other caucus-goers, knew the doors at the Democratic caucus were supposed to close at 7 pm, so he arrived downtown close to 6 pm. By then, the Boise Center and CenturyLink Arena — the side-by-side caucus sites for Ada County — were already mobbed. It took him nearly half an hour to find parking.

Then he had to find the end of the line, which was easier said than done.

By that point, there were two lines, each snaking through the Linen District. When volunteers stopped letting people join the line at 7 pm, the end of the line was a mile away from the site. In some places, the two lines wound around on themselves, wrapping around buildings, zig-zagging along the block. Those near the front of the line tried to help late-comers find the end, but no one knew exactly what to tell them.

While smaller counties across the state wrapped up their two rounds of caucus voting, Johnson and thousands of others waited in the wind. Friendly passers-by offered coffee and scones to those hanging out in the back, and people shared coats and blankets. More than one group ordered food.

Considering the long wait, the chilly wind, a shortage of pens for which to fill out ballots, and the scarcity of food and water for the nearly 10,000 caucus-goers in Ada County, attendees were remarkably patient. But as the night went on, observers couldn’t ignore the undercurrent of annoyance from those who didn’t realize they would be spending six or seven hours to cast their votes.

We know how many successfully voted at the Ada County caucus — 9,115. But how many didn’t? How many, like Johnson, assumed they could show up in the last hour before the caucus doors closed? How many Kuna or Meridian Democrats couldn’t find parking? How many saw the mile-long line and turned away? How many stayed in line for one or two hours, but took off because they had to work in the morning, or because their babysitter wasn’t willing to stay until 11 pm?

That doesn’t count the Democrats who wanted to participate, but couldn’t because of travel, or work schedules, or illness, or babysitter issues. In one of the most terrible ironies of the day, many of Idaho’s Democratic leaders serving in the Legislature didn’t have the time to hop a plane to participate in Nez Perce or Bannock County caucuses.

And the problems weren’t limited to Ada County. I’ve spoken to Democrats who bargained with spouses over who would stay home with the kids, and who would go caucus. Democrats who deal with health issues who had to weigh the pros and cons of fighting the crowd. Democrats who had been excited about attending, but saw the line at 6:45 pm and knew there was no way they could stay for hours while the process sorted itself out. And while the party is celebrating the record-breaking turnout, individuals are taking to social media to express their frustration at a caucus that was so successful, it threatened to suffocate the party that organized it.

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Democratic caucus attendees from Ada County’s Congressional District 2 listen to instructions from Lauren McLean on the big screen at CenturyLink Arena.  (Melissa Davlin/Idaho Public Television)

THE DOWNSIDE OF THE CROWD

Caucuses aren’t new to American politics, and the Elko, Nevada caucus Idaho Reports covered in February didn’t take seven hours. The precinct we covered lasted less than an hour, and it was the longest one at the caucus site we were at. By the time we made it through that  session, all other precincts had wrapped up voting and left. So what was the difference?

The biggest time-suck: The Idaho Democratic Caucus split participants by county, not by precinct.

Because of the sheer number of Ada County Democrats, volunteers divided caucus-goers by congressional district. The CD1 voters — those who live in west Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Kuna — went to Boise Center, while the much larger group of CD 2 voters — those from east Boise, the Boise Bench and the North End — packed CenturyLink Arena, located next door on the same property. That’s a total of 9,115 Democratic caucus participants for Ada County.

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The hand-written results from the first round of voting at the Ada County Caucus. (Melissa Davlin/Idaho Public Television)

Compare that to the Feb. 20 Democratic caucus in Nevada. Clark County, home of Las Vegas, saw 8,690 caucus-goers. That’s just 500 participants short of what Ada County saw on Tuesday. There were delays at some of the larger voting sites in Las Vegas, but not to the level of what Boise saw on Tuesday.

Ada County was unique in its numbers, but smaller counties still had crowd control issues. Some Latah County caucus goers waitedfor 90 minutes. Organizers eventually allowed people to submit ballots and leave.

EFFECTS ON UPCOMING ELECTIONS?

I spoke to Boise participants throughout the evening, whose reactions ranged from mild irritation to outright disgust. That annoyance bubbled over when the MC announced at 10:30 pm that voters who weren’t planning on changing their minds could leave. We could have left hours ago, I heard more than once.

Both venues emptied out almost immediately, though a thousand or so people stuck around to see the the final results, or to change their vote in the second round of voting, or to put their name in for becoming a delegate. I saw a handful of parents with sleeping babies and drowsy toddlers in their arms, and a few people asleep on the floor at the Boise Center.

At about 11 pm, I found Johnson again in the thinning crowd at CenturyLink. He was in good spirits, but exhausted and hungry — he’d donated blood just before showing up at the caucus site.

Despite the fatigue, Johnson was still smiling as he talked to me. Overall, he was pretty happy about his first caucus experience.

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Photo by Melissa Davlin/Idaho Public Television

While I was chatting with Johnson, Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie spoke to one long-time participant in the political process. The man wore two knee braces. “I’ve been standing since 4,” he said. Was the seven hour wait worth it? Yes, the man said, but only because been following Sanders’ career for decades. Would he have done it for another candidate? Probably not, he said.

And to be sure, there were some plusses from the participants I talked to. They enjoyed meeting other Democrats, and the energy at the event — especially at the packed CenturyLink arena — made for a memorable evening.

But again, that’s for the people who were able to get in.

Johnson and I were separated when the staff at CenturyLink evicted the caucus-goers — the event lasted longer than anyone anticipated, and they needed to start work on switching the arena over to a hockey rink for Friday’s Steelheads game. He had told me he had participated in past general elections, but I didn’t get a chance to ask if he planned to participate in the upcoming primary and general elections. (This year, only one Ada County Democrat — Rep. John McCrostie of District 16 — has a primary opponent, but the five-way Supreme Court race is non-partisan and on all ballots.)

Idaho Democrats have time to figure out what to do with their presidential candidate selection process. But their short-term challenge is more pressing: Translating the enthusiasm from last night’s participants into votes in November, and reaching out to those who were unable to participate at all.

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