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Cakewalk for Democracy February 23, 2008

Posted by flyingsirkus in Uncategorized.
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Photo by Sam Morris

Delegates and alternates crowd the hallway leading to Bally’s convention center as they wait to get in to the Clark County Democratic Convention Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008. Image from The Las Vegas Sun.

Today I arrived at the Clark County Democratic Convention at Bally’s Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip to fulfill my obligation as a delegate from my caucus location for Senator Barack Obama. Having participated in the last two presidential contests from the dazzlingly bizzare vantage point of Florida residency, I take very seriously the idea that one person can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of an election. Therefore, I feel it is my responsibility to stand up and be counted, and in the State of Nevada, that meant both caucusing for Senator Obama and volunteering to be a delegate at the County Convention representing his campaign for Clark County.

I cannot express how delightfully shocked I am that so many of my neighbors in the Democratic party feel the same way. The caucus took place a few weeks ago, and for the first time Nevada was one of the first major contests, which motivated a lot of people to make an initial stand for their candidate. Because I was working on the Las Vegas Strip on the Saturday morning the caucus was held, I was afforded the opportunity to leave work and walk to a caucus location set up by the Culinary Union at the casino next door.

The Culinary Union (of which I am not a member, but my husband is) worked with the Nevada Democratic Party to make the Las Vegas Strip what is called an “at-large” district. What this boils down to is essentially a secondary caucusing location (not based on home address) where qualified voters could caucus. Qualification to attend a caucusing event at an at-large district location was based on whether or not a voter was scheduled to work that day on the Strip, and was intended to be a way of enfranchising the thousands of eligible voters in Las Vegas who, by necessity, work on Saturdays to keep the Strip, the revenue-generating engine of Las Vegas, running.

Because I was working that Saturday morning, I was eligible to caucus at the at-large district at the Luxor. My local contact for the Obama campaign was an at-large organizer, and he informed me that I should be at the caucus location by 10:30, registration would be over by 11:00, and the caucus would kick-off, count voters, and be over by noon at the latest. I shared this information with my employer, and off I went to do my bit for the democratic process.

All went well for the first forty-five minutes. The ballroom where the caucus was held filled with a steady trickle of people, and the general curiosity of the caucus process made for engaging conversation with politically-minded strangers. The room kept filling with people, and as I checked my watch, 11:30 ticked by without so much as an announcement from one of the official-looking people engaged in conversations around the room. At 11:45, the announcement was made that the people outside at the registration tables were still working on processing registration for the multitude of people who had arrived ready to caucus, and that we were to sit tight. I called my employer to let him know I’d be delayed, then watched and listened as the caucus unfolded.

The at-large district consisted of convention rooms set aside at about every third casino up and down the strip. I worked at the southernmost major casino on the Strip, Mandalay Bay, and so my location was next door at the Luxor. Employees from the casino next door to that, the Excalibur, were also using that at-large location to caucus. The organizers expected about 250 people. Close to 500 showed up. Now, a caucus is what’s called a warm-body event, which means that when a head count is called for, the actual number of heads are counted, as opposed to a primary where paper ballots representing the desires of those heads are counted. This means that 0nce you are admitted to a caucus location, you MUST NOT LEAVE until the caucus is completely over. There were no restrooms in the ballroom, and soon it was 12:15 and still no indication that any kind of count was going to happen in the immediate future.

The room was swarming with people, and organizers were scrabbling to find chairs for everyone. With all the cameras recording everyone’s every move, the aura soon turned high-school-pep-rally, with Democrats chanting the names and slogans of their candidates, trying to drown out the other candidate’s supporters. I declined to participate in the fist-pumping shoutdown, and the woman next to me berated me in the third person for not being peppy enough: “I don’t understand why SOME PEOPLE aren’t fired up,” she kept hollering in my general direction. “Why aren’t SOME PEOPLE showing their spirit?” In response, I wanted to grab the microphone from the podium at the front of the room and start drowning out the “O-ba-MA!”s and the “HILL-a-RY!”s with a perspective-shifting cheer of “DEM-O-CRATS! DEM-O-CRATS!” It seemed very silly to me, since we are all ostensibly on the same big-picture team, but as Andrew Lloyd Weber had Jesus sing to Caiaphas, “Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd? Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.”

Eventually, we all gathered in smaller groups for the ugliness that is the caucusing process. From what I understand, the caucus method was chosen over the primary method because it is relatively less expensive, but the confusion and resentment towards the political process that ensued were definitely NOT worth the cost savings. Some people, afraid for their jobs, slipped out the door and caused the total number of heads counted to be inaccurate, so heads had to be counted again and again. Others complained about being hungry, thirsty, and unable to leave to pee. Still others had to postpone plans, put babysitters on overtime, cancel later events, and otherwise interrupt their routines because of the tremendous amount of time the process took.

After everything was over, the organizers called in the final tally of caucusgoers and, in some really twisted mathematical nighmare, it was decided that something like 78 delegates were needed to represent the 460 people who caucused for Obama. How is it possible that TWENTY PERCENT have to be WARM-BODY COUNTED AGAIN? It seemed extraordinarily high and unrealistic to me. However, I figured that there was no way that many people would show up at the convention, so I signed up to be a delegate, figuring that I knew that I would at least be there.

Boy, was I wrong.

Last night, I received a recorded message telling me not to forget that the Clark County Convention was going to be the morning of February 23. I was told to be there as early as I could, and that the proceedings would start at 8:00 am and that the convention would be held at 10:00am. I dropped my son off at my grandmother’s house at just after 8:00 and drove to Bally’s Hotel and Casino. There was a wall of traffic blocking the lanes leading to the casino. “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-o” I thought, channeling the spirit of Queen Tilli.

It took me about an hour to park my car. Once I got into the casino, I was directed to the back of a line that was–I am NOT making this up or exaggerating–approximately a half-mile long, snaking its way through hallways, over ramps, and around slot machines and blackjack tables.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “If people can wait three days in line for Star Wars tickets, I can certainly wait a few hours for participatory democracy.” I tried to read, but the line was moving just fast enough and the material I was reading was just challenging enough that I couldn’t retain what I was reading. So I struck up a very interesting conversation with the man in line next to me that spanned languages, world travel, foreign cuisine, how to cheat at roulette, how to mark a deck of cards, the intricacies of being an optimistic cynical socialist, the metric system, the pros and cons of cat ownership, and birdwatching. It was a very long line; I’m glad I can talk about a lot of different things.

Finally, I arrived at the front of the line and was sent to the at-large district table to find the form I had filled out at the caucus naming me a delegate. The folder that was supposed to hold all the delegate forms from the Luxor was empty; my form was nowhere to be found. After helping the woman riffle through delegate forms, way too few for the number of people who should have been represented, I was sent to the alternate registration table and registered as an alternate. This means that I did not get to cast my vote as a delegate for Barack Obama.

However, I did sit around and wait to see if somehow, somewhere, the mysterious forms would be found. I got to do this with over a thousand other people whose forms were also lost. Visions of Florida were dancing through my head. I also saw delegate votes being collected in unmarked white boxes by volunteers, which I thought was a pretty risky practice. Who’s to say that some lunatic didn’t take his or her box into an empty room, shake all the ballots out, discard the ones that marked a choice opposing the one the lunatic preferred, and then consolidated the votes elsewhere?


I did get to hear Al Franken make a personal and funny speech over the loudspeaker that I found inspiring, but for the most part I got to listen to angry people who felt disenfranchised because the organization was so bad. Remember that theme I mentioned earlier? Four years ago, the Democratic convention had 800 attendees. This time around, they estimated an attendance of 5,000.

Over EIGHT THOUSAND PEOPLE showed up at the convention today.

The fire marshall had to work with the organizers to find space for everyone, or the entire convention would have been cancelled due to fire safety regulations. A motion was called by both the leaders of the Clinton campaign and the Obama campaign to recess the convention and reconvene sometime at least two weeks from today, but not more than a month from today. People were furious, and I can’t blame them. Many took off work, had to pay for childcare, or cancelled/rearranged plans in order to have their voices heard TODAY, and to be told they had to come back, possibly stand in another half-mile long line, and do it again was infuriating. People did not want to be rational and wait for the Democratic Party to better organize so that everyone could be enfranchised; they wanted to feel as if they had NOT wasted their entire day. However, it is difficult to move on when so many hundreds of people are looking for someone to blame, some scapegoat to vent their fury upon. Once the committee leader made clear that no voting was to take place today, I decided to leave. I knew people would not want to listen to reason until someone could explain things to them in a way that appealed to their own self-interest, and I know I will return to represent Sen. Obama regardless of what is decided in committee.

So that was today’s experience in participatory democracy. I am very disappointed that so many people did have their days wasted, but at the same time I am tingling with excitement that SO MANY PEOPLE bothered to stay as long as they did, to want to make their voices heard and to want to stand for REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT and not this “Ah’m the Decider” bullshit that has stained our democracy for far too long.

(Edited to adjust the numbers of attendees, which I recalled hearing as 50,000 anticipated and 120,000 actual, but according to official numbers were the much more reasonable 5,000 anticipated and 8,000 actual. Also added a picture of one of the hallways jammed with people. Keep in mind that there were also ballrooms FULL of people!)