Caucus Crowds Challenge Both Parties

What could be the largest presidential caucuses in Colorado history could also offer the most logistical headaches.Arapahoe County Republican Barbara Fruitman wanted to know where to go for her local presidential caucus Feb. 5. So the Centennial woman went where it made sense – to her party’s local website.

The website instructed Fruitman to use a “precinct finder” to figure out where to caucus. Fruitman typed in her address, including the fact that she lived on a “Place,” not a street. “We could not find that address,” the website told her. “Tip: Try typing just the beginni”.

The rest of the message on that line was obliterated by a rail of GOP “Quick Links,” none of which could tell Fruitman where to caucus.

If she typed in just the name of the street she lived on, but not “Place,” she could get a response from the computer. Sadly, it referred her to a precinct number that didn’t exist on the list of precinct and caucus locations listed on the website.

Fruitman is tenacious. She’d prefer to see a single national primary on the same day, since she thinks Iowans and folks from New Hampshire don’t know better than the rest of us who’s presidential material. That said, she plays the hand she’s dealt. She persisted and found her caucus site, a nine-mile drive from her home. So she’ll make her presidential preference known. But her experience hints at logistical problems that could haunt the biggest political caucuses in Colorado history.

Officials from both parties insist they have planned for an unprecedented crush of people. Some are even inviting it. Barack Obama’s campaign is on the radio asking registered Democrats to come to the Feb. 5 statewide caucuses that will choose delegates for county assemblies in March. The candidate himself came to Colorado this week, as did former President Bill Clinton, who is the stalking horse for his wife, Hillary.

If appearances by Bill Clinton and Obama don’t fill the Democrats’ caucus seats, nothing will.

We’re expecting a monster turnout, the biggest ever,” said Colorado Democratic Chairwoman Pat Waak. “We predicted this when we saw (record) turnouts in Iowa.”

Waak’s biggest concern is having to turn away Democrats who are not properly registered or worse, having to shut the doors on those who are properly registered but arrive at caucuses after the 7 p.m. starting time.

“It’s a great sign for democracy that we have to worry,” Waak said. “If you’re in line by 7, you should get to caucus.”

El Paso County Republicans, meanwhile, are running radio ads and sending direct mail to get people to caucus sites in record numbers.

“That’s one thing we’re doing which we’ve never done,” said El Paso GOP executive director Nathan Fisk. “We’re telling people this is where their voices can be heard. We hope to exceed 7,000 (caucus-goers  in the county).”

He may get his wish and then some. Interest in this open presidential election tops most presidential elections in modern memory. Record turnouts in Iowa’s caucuses for both parties and South Carolina’s record turnout for last Saturday’s Democratic primary portend amazing crowds in the 22 states set to express presidential preferences next Tuesday.

“There is a level of excitement that people didn’t realize would be there,” Waak explained.
In Democratic strongholds such as Denver and Boulder Counties, officials are looking for at least twice as many caucus attendees as they normally see.

Boulder County is urging participants to arrive half-an-hour early to make sure they get in.

“We knew we were going to get hugely larger numbers than ever before,” said Susan Boucher, an office manager with the Boulder County Democrats. “We’ve gone through extensive training for precinct leaders.”

Those leaders must direct and record hand-raising votes for president – no secret ballots allowed. Then, caucus leaders must commit delegates to the county assembly for candidates who get at least 15 percent of the total while allowing those supporting candidates who get less than 15 percent to either commit to a candidate who did get 15 percent or remain uncommitted.

Got it?

Me neither.

What’s brewing could be a logistical nightmare based on numbers alone. Toss in a few speeches in favor of particular candidates and the expected discussion of impeaching George W. Bush at some Democratic caucuses and you’ve got yourself an agenda that might strain the 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. time limits both parties have set for their caucuses.

“We may have to pay extra to the custodians” at some school sites in Denver, Dan Willis, the secretary of the Denver County Democrats, admitted.

But with state coordinators at each of the 44 Denver caucus sites, most business should run smoothly, director of operations Jennifer Jacobson maintained.

For both parties, it will certainly be first things first. And the first thing everyone cares about is the presidency.

Fisk said his protocol requires a secret-ballot straw poll for Republican presidential hopefuls right out of the blocks.

“The first thing we’ll do is elect a chairman for each caucus. Then a teller committee will distribute ballots for the straw poll. Then surrogates for the different presidential candidates will speak. We believe we’ll have plenty of time to do this in an hour or an hour and a half. If it takes longer because there are so many people, that’s a good problem.”

The goal for Republicans around the state is to have all results of the presidential straw polls phoned into state GOP headquarters by 7:30 or 8 p.m.

That could prove a tall order if crowds get too big. But Fisk said his party has been conducting “extensive training for two and a half months.”

Unlike Democrats, Republicans will not be conducting a U.S. Senate preference poll at their caucuses.

Democrats, meanwhile, seem to face a more encumbered caucus process and a few more opportunities for controversy.

Like the Republicans, Democrats will determine and report presidential preferences first. Then, they’ll do a Senate preference poll to select between Rep. Mark Udall and state central committee member Mark Benner, a progressive candidate. Finally, it will be on to issues. In Denver County, Willis expects some debate over endorsing the impeachment of Bush.

Boucher says interest is so high in Boulder that people who are not properly registered to participate in the Democratic caucuses have asked to come and observe.

“Observers understand that if we reach fire marshal restriction levels, they will be asked to leave,” Boucher said. “How many caucuses have you heard of where people want to come just to watch?”

Not many.

It all adds up to an interesting, important and logistically challenging evening.

Barbara Fruitman hopes to participate.

Now that she finally knows where to go.

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