A shockingly high turnout caused hundreds of registered Democrats to leave a North Boulder caucus Tuesday night without casting their votes.
Disorganization and overcrowding left many voters, including those who did get to vote, calling for a return to the primary system.
By 7:30 p.m., a line of thousands still stretched around Centennial Middle School. When organizers told voters further back in line they would have to go home, they responded with complaints and angry shouts.
The volunteers soon came back with an update, telling voters instead that nobody would be turned away — but the caucus was starting without them.
Reactions weren’t much better.
“It seems like an obstruction of the democratic process for sure,” said Willem Korevaar, 18. “We might not even get to register, which definitely doesn’t feel great.” Korevaar was hoping to caucus for Bernie Sanders.
The scene inside the school was even more chaotic. A main hallway quickly became bottlenecked as people crowded around the registration tables.
One voter likened it to “a Nicaraguan election without the machine guns.” Another said it felt like a Japanese subway car.
Martha McPherson, who was able to get inside to register, was dismayed to find that she still wasn’t able to vote.
“They told us that we had to go to the main gym, but when we got there they said the vote had already been taken,” she said.
McPherson blamed the outcome on the fact that the caucus had to end at 9 p.m., which she found inexplicable. “It’s not like the building is going to be used at 9 o’clock,” she said.
Voters in different precincts dealt with the confusion in a variety of ways. Some rooms tried to wait it out, hoping stragglers would make it in time. Others took multiple votes.
Some in attendance reported suspicious activities, like handfuls of ballots being turned in on behalf of people in line who never actually showed up.
Joseph Jonas, 57, called the entire process “a disaster.”
“The caucus system is inexpensive, but it’s unfair. It doesn’t work,” he said. “We need to return to a primary system where everybody’s vote counts and we get an accurate representation of candidate support.”
Colorado switched to the caucus system in 2002 after holding presidential primaries for a decade.
Voters throughout the school echoed this disdain for the caucus system. In the auditorium, a suggestion to return to a primary system was met with applause.
Some of the angriest voters threatened to file lawsuits against party headquarters.
Rich Trilsch, who experienced similar disorganization at Boulder High School, sent an invoice to Colorado Democratic Party requesting reimbursement for lost time.
Jonas also complained about the distribution of delegates. His precinct voted 3-2 for Sanders, but was only allotted four delegates. They were split evenly between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Another voter said the same thing: The candidates were given one delegate each even though the precinct vote was uneven.
Ultimately, turnout at the caucus seemed representative of the rest of the state. There were signs, buttons and t-shirts for both sides, with Sanders supporters slightly outnumbering those for Clinton. Time restraints kept heated electioneering to a minimum.
Mike, a caucus volunteer who declined to give his last name, said he never expected so many voters to show up.
He said the organizers based attendance estimates on the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, where “Democrats weren’t as motivated.” He admitted that such an estimate was a mistake.
But McPherson said those at party headquarters should have known better.
“They’re saying they didn’t expect this amount of turnout, but come on. Why didn’t they? This is a pretty charged moment,” she said.
A charged moment indeed. “We were expecting 12-15 percent. We could have managed that,” said Mike, holding up all the leftover registration cards in two small stacks.
“I think we were closer to 20 percent,” he said.
Photo credit: Kelsey Ray