Texas caucus count is a slow step toward finish

March 6, 2008 7:40:05 PM PST
Fewer than half of Texas' voting sites had reported the results by Thursday from Democratic caucuses Tuesday night that were so chaotic and overcrowded by record turnout that police were called to some polling places. So there's no winner yet for the caucuses, the second stage of the state's Democratic primary, which allocates 67 delegates to the national convention this summer.

As of Thursday afternoon, Sen. Barack Obama was ahead with 56 percent to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's 44 percent based on reports to state party headquarters by 41 percent of the precinct caucuses. Clinton beat Obama in the first step of Texas' contest, a standard state-run primary. Her 51 percent of the vote, compared to his 47 percent, earned her 65 delegates to his 61 delegates.

One reason for the slow caucus count is that phoning in the results to state party officials is voluntary.

The 8,247 precinct officials are required only to mail the results of their caucuses to their county party chairmen 72 hours after the primary election day. County chairmen don't have to reveal those results until county or state Senate district conventions March 29.

"We've gotten a lot of results back, but it's important to remember Texas is a large state, and this is a voluntary call-in system," said party spokesman Hector Nieto.

But reporting results was only part of the problem with Texas' twenty-year-old, two-stage system in which a standard state-run primary is followed on the Democratic side by party-run caucuses held at the same voting sites but until 15 minutes after all primary voting ends.

The primary-caucus system, nicknamed the "Texas Two-step," has never been tested like it was this week, said Gerry Birnberg, Democratic chairman in Harris County, where Houston is located.

Four days before election day, Texas officials predicted a record 3.3 million would participate. But when Tuesday's voting was over, Texans had set an even higher record: 4.2 million, a third of the state's registered voters, participated in the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Even though 1.84 million took advantage of a 10-day early voting period to cast ballots before Tuesday, there were still so many voting Tuesday that they produced long lines outside polling places.

At one Houston high school, people were waiting to vote in the first-stage primary past midnight. The Democratic caucus couldn't start until after they finished that voting.

A combination of events as rare as Halley's comet produced the turnout, Birnberg said: Primaries open to voters of any party, a virtually concluded Republican race and the excitement of the close and historic Obama-Clinton contest.

When the caucuses finally began, rooms at schools and other polling places were too small for some. Some caucuses ran short of sign-in sheets.

Tempers flared among emotional supporters of Clinton and Obama.

Birnberg said Houston police were dispatched to a half-dozen locations to keep matters under control.

"Someone walking into a room with a blue uniform on has a very calming effect," he said.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, said he finally got a janitor at Smith Academy in northwest Houston to open up some classrooms so the caucus would have a meeting place. Turner also said few people seemed to understand the caucus process.

Many people ended up leaving because they had to wait so long.

At one Dallas area location, Democrats were told they had to convene in the parking lot because Republicans were holding a meeting inside.

Democratic caucus-goers had to organize in the parking lot of a Baptist Church in Austin because the crowd was so large.

At a San Antonio caucus, 78-year-old retired school teacher Marianne Rickabaugh, who voted for Obama, had to wait for two hours after the polls were supposed to close for her caucus to begin because it took that long for all the primary voters in line at closing to finish voting.

She said she thought she could just sign in and leave the caucus, but was told she needed to stay. She sat on uncomfortable gym benches and waited.

"It was just crazy," she said. "There was a lot of nasty tension. I didn't like it at all."

A similar problem of unanticipated crowds overwhelmed the Democratic caucuses in much smaller New Mexico last month. New Mexico's caucuses - really a party-run "firehouse" primary with fewer polling places and shorter hours than a state-run primary - were held Feb. 5, but weren't decided until Feb. 14.