Caucus Primer

Guest Post by Gerry Cohen


Due to snags in approval of North Carolina's legislative redistricting plan and a Democratic National Committee requirement that delegate selection be finished by early June, the North Carolina Democratic Party has established caucuses to determine candidate preferences from North Carolina in time for the Democratic National Convention in July. North Carolina's 20 at-large delegates will be allocated proportionately to any candidate getting at least 15% of the caucus vote statewide, and the same 15% rule will apply in each congressional district, where from four to six delegates will be elected. (The Fourth District - including all of Durham and Orange, north Chatham, and western Wake - is the only district getting six delegates.)

Caucus voting will take place from 8 am to noon across North Carolina at sites varying from one to four per county. Registered North Carolina Democrats can vote at any of the sites regardless of which county the voter is registered in. In Orange County, Democrats can vote either at the Chapel Hill Town Hall on North Columbia Street or at the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough. Cutoff for voter registration and party changes for the caucus is April 9.

The full list of caucus sites is at

While the word "caucus" may conjure up a thought of a packed room of voters arguing for three hours about their preferences, in fact the process could be better referred to as "primary lite." Democrats arriving at the caucus site will "register their participation by completing a form... containing pertinent voter registration information for the attendee, declaring their presidential candidate preference or uncommitted preference, and signing a statement of support for that preference and an oath that the voter registration information of the attendee is true and accurate. The form shall then be returned to designated caucus officials." But unlike a primary, the signed ballots will be open to public inspection for 90 days after the caucus. The choices on the ballot will be Dean, Edwards, Kerry, Kucinich, Sharpton, and uncommitted. The ballots will be counted at each site at noon and statewide totals will be available later that day. Counts by congressional district may have to await the canvass of the votes a week later, since the ballots will be sorted by congressional districts and recounted at a central location. Wake County, for example, is in three congressional districts.

There is also absentee voting for any voter who can not make it to a caucus site "as a result of sickness or physical disability or religious reasons." (Saturday is the Sabbath for Jews and some other denominations.) To get an absentee preference form, voters must state the reason, and send the written request to be received no later than April 9, 2004 to:

North Carolina Democratic Party
Absentee Caucus Request
220 Hillsborough Street
Raleigh, NC 27603

Full details of the plan are at

(The actual rules on how to calculate delegate allocation based on the primary results are so arcane that I managed to write four-page paper on it for a class at Carolina I am taking this spring. It can be found at The data in the paper is all hypothetical.)

Gerry Cohen served on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1973 to 1979, and ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Chapel Hill in 1975 and 1979. He has lived in Raleigh since 1984. Gerry has been Director of Bill Drafting for the North Carolina General Assembly since 1981. Gerry was delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Gerry received his BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1971, and his JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1975. He is currently a part-time graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Chapel Hill, and is completing the last of 27 hours of course work towards an MA this semester.



Why only two locations to vote? Who made that decision? The county party organization, the State, or the Board of Elections? Joal Broun

answering Joal:

The State party provided that there was to be one site in each county, but counties meeting certain populations thressholds would have two or four. Orange was in the group llowed to have two. it all fell out on the decision to run something totally volnteer based on a statewide level with only 100 days to plan and run it.

This is most distressing! Did registered democrats receive an explanation and instructions in the mail, or a phone call? I've not had either, and am really feeling very disenfranchised.

My intention, if I can get out of other commitments and to one of the sites on Saturday morning, is to vote for Al Sharpton.

Also, I'd like to promote the concept of redistricting on the basis of watershed boundaries. I'm told this has been done in New Zealand, and I believe it would solve a lot of our problems here.

Thank you all for providing this information on the caucuses that I can now share with my friends and neighbors. I found it very helpful, and got here with a simple internet search.


As I mentioned, the word "caucus" is a misnomer because there will be no opportunity for discussion. You just go in and vote. The caucuses are not restricted to party activists, it is just that mostly party activists are likely to go to vote on a Saturday morning with only two locations in the county. But ANY registered Democrat can vote at the "caucus"

It seems to me that this change from open primaries to caucuses just for party activists is a pretty big change. In the past I have usually voted in the Democratic primary. (In fact, back when it was only open to party members, I changed my registration to D. Once the state opened it up I went back to U (because there is no S).)

So I consider myself to be on the fringe of the party. I feel kind of unwelcome in the caucus. But perhaps that's no accident.

Gerry and others, what do you see as the role for progressives who don't identify themselves with the party? And what will be the implications of hearing mostly from just the party faithful at the caucus?

the National party rules require that delegates be assigned by congressional district and statewide to any candidate getting 15% of the vote in each Congressioal district and/or statewide. Another way the party could have done things was to have the "caucus" at each precinct meeting across the state, but I think was deemed logistically infeasible because there was no guarantee that there would be someone to run the even at all the plolling places, many were not available, etc. In my opinion, having the caucus at the 127 locations with lots of publicity and having them staffed is a relatively democratic affair, although MOST caucus voters are likely to be activists. A caucus system rewards party members who are active enough to jump through hoops. I would predict the tunrout will be about 10% of what it would have been with a primary BUT A PRIMARY WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO HOLD BECAUSE JULY 20 WAS AFTER THE NATIONAL PARTY DEADLINE OF JUNE 8.

answering Ruby and Jeff:


I share your concern, although I believe that the balloting itself is on the honor system, meaning there will be no attempt to have each caucus site to have a list of all 1 million Democrats and check the names off. If there is fraud, the ballot of the cheater could be yanked because it is signed.

I'm voting for Edwards.

It can't possibly hurt his chances for VP if he does well.

Also, I think it gives the ticket the best hope of unseating the corporation masquerading as a person as nader portrays bush.

answering Jeff first:


Obviously it could have a negative impact on Edwards if he lost the primary. But I don't think if the RELATIVELY small number of Kucinich and Dean supporters vote ther conscience that it will result in Edwards losing the primary. There is a good chance with the probaby low caucus turnout that Dean or Edwards COULD get over the 15% threshhold in Districts like the 4th and 11th.

answering Ruby (and others echoing the same theme)


The problem is that the party had with minimal prep time the requirement to run it on a statewide basis. They figured that by putting it on the MORNING of county conventions that it would be 1) easier to get volunteers to staff the caucus sites; and 2) easier to get people to vote because activists already had the date on their calendars as they were probably planning to attend the conventions in the afternoon. There is ZIPPO public money available to run the caucuses. I am not sure that young people are any more disadvantaged than anyone else. Also, for Chapel Hill and other college towns, the rule that you can vote anywhere in the state means that in-state college students can just go to the Municipal Building and vote, and don't need to deal with absentee ballots or driving home.

I agree with Ruby that it wasn't a good idea to keep the caucus polls open for only four hours. The thing that depresses turnout in Iowa is that people have to actually show up for a meeting, which may last as long as two to four hours. Here, we've eliminated that requirement by going to something closer to a traditional poll system, and it seems that we could have taken advanttage of that change by keeping the polls open longer -- we're not hemmed in by the need to conduct an actual meeting.

Why does the Democratic Party make these "votes" public? I won't mind divulging my vote -- once I decide it -- but it seems that a core tenet of democracy, the secret ballot, is missing here.

Gerry, your logic seems wrong. Kerry could hardly pick an Edwards incapable of carrying his own state's primary. You might as well argue that since no Democrat has won N.C.'s electoral votes since 1976, Orange County Dems might as well skip voting for president next November.

I share Jeff's concern about making the votes public, I think that's pretty disturbing. But I really don't care how my vote affects VP positioning. (And I care even less about whether our soon-to-be-former Senator gets the nod.)

I'm even more disturbed to learn that the "caucus" only runs from 8 am to noon on a Saturday. Usually the polls are open for 13 hours, from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm. What justifies this 30% reduction in hours? Could they send a stronger message to young people that their votes are not wanted?

The timing is more likely to make me not vote than the fact that I can hardly stomach any of the candidates.

I agree that it would be nicer if the caucuses were open longer, but notice that they're taking place on a Saturday, not a working day -- a reform I'd like to see applied in regular primary years and in the general elections. (Or, a national holiday on Voting Day -- what's more symbolic of our Republic than the day we vote?)

About the lack of anonymity (at least for 90 days) enjoyed by those participating. Gerry, do other caucus states (say, Iowa for instance) make signed ballots available to the public? I don't think Iowa does -- Republicans cast secret straw votes and ultimately elect county delegates -- the delegates being the only lingering evidence of the caucus's preference. I don't think that Democrats cast ballots at all.

I realize that the process isn't exactly anonymous in Iowa -- you will definitely know, especially if you're a Democrat, who your neighbors are voting for that night when they stand up for their preferred candidates. On the Republican side, you'll have a good idea who likes whom based on which delegates get elected to the county convention, and who votes for them. But the difference in both cases is that it's delegates that come out of the caucuses, not ballots. (That's my understanding, Gerry -- please correct me!)

I suppose, given the time crunch, that NC Dems had to pull together some hybrid of the caucus and primary systems. I'm assuming, for instance, that the 15% threshold is derived from the Democratic practice (at least, in Iowa) of using that number to decide which candidates are viable, and therefore eligible for county delegates. The ballot aspect of it strays more toward the Republican way of running a caucus -- although I'm still not clear that Republican make their ballots available to public inspection afterward.

I'm guessing the explanation for all this is that there's so little time, and that the state's Democratic district delegates (most of the state's delegates to the national convention) will be selected straight out of the county caucuses (based on numbers issued by the county "convention" which takes place the same day as the county caucuses, and which I assume is just a quick meeting of local Dem. Party leaders. Is that right?)

And so, for the candidates, it's the individual votes of North Carolina Democrats that mean the most in terms of delegates, and therefore it's individual ballots that would be of the most interest to them, if they suspected fraud. I'm assuming that's one reason for holding them open for 90 days. The county votes will be translated into National Convention delegates not by the election of unpledged county delegates to a district convention, but by the allocation of "pledged" district delegates to presidential candidates based on county numbers, an allocation made by officials at a District "convention" and confirmed by the State party.

If we'd had time, we could have done this all by real conventions using elected delegates -- at the county, district, and state levels -- and there would have been no need to keep ballots open for inspection.

Am I reading these rules right, Gerry?

I like the idea of caucuses because it's a proportional representation system, not a winner-takes-all. If most states made use of proportional representation systems, we'd still be having a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, not one that was decided within a month of the first contest. In fact, I'd love to see the Republican and Democratic parties in the states that now hold primaries too late to have any meaning under our current system -- North Carolina being one of them -- go to proportional representation as a bloc, so that their votes can't be dismissed and candidates wouldn't feel pressured to drop out after a couple of losses. Dean, Edwards, Clark, Gephardt, and Lieberman could all be still in the running if the later states went to proportional representation for elected delegates. In a competitive race, the convention would actually have meaning.

Gerry, is there any chance that North Carolina Dems (and Republicans, for that matter) could switch to a caucus or proportional representation system if this experiment works pretty well? Or are there laws barring that?

Gerry, thanks for the explanation of this process. Seems like a candidate will need 15% of a very small number in order to pick up a delegate because the turn out will probably be very light. I am not sure it makes much difference who we vote for at this point, but I think it would be constructive to vote for John Edwards.

Edwards would be a great choice for Vice-president and a strong showing for him at this point in the NC primary/caucus could help that to become reality.

I have also heard Dean and Kucinich supporters say that there is some symbolic significance to voting for either of them. And I suppose the same thing would be true for Sharpton, although I have yet to hear anyone say that they are voting for Sharpton.

How are OP readers planning on voting (if at all)?

Gerry, thanks for the report, but I have trouble applying it

to this situation: If one's primary goal is to replace President Bush and one's secondary goal is to promote John Edwards as VP, how should one vote?

To answer Mark and Joe:

I don't think how many votes Edwards gets in Orange County will have much impact on his VP chances!


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