Calling for change in confusing caucus system

AUSTIN, TX Bedlam and kookiness also came to mind.

Texas' Democratic caucus system that selects some presidential delegates after the polls close was tested Tuesday as thousands of voters showed up to participate and found themselves confused.

Marianne Rickabaugh, a 78-year-old retired teacher in San Antonio who voted for Barack Obama, gave the system a failing grade.

"It was just so disorganized. It was just crazy," said Rickabaugh, who arrived a half hour before the polls were to close at 7 p.m. and ended up waiting until 9 p.m. for her caucus to begin because so people who were still in line to vote could do so.

Some caucuses didn't end until the early morning hours.

Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston on Wednesday urged the state party to abandon its hybrid primary-caucus system, nicknamed the "Texas Two-Step."

"People were clearly motivated to be part of the process," Turner said. "But because the time it took to vote, the time it took to wait in line for the precinct caucus, the lack of space and the general confusion over the process, many voters today feel disenfranchised."

Turner said the problems diminished voters' spirits. He said he spent election night trying to help at crowded precinct caucuses in his district. Many ended up leaving because it took so long to find space to meet and to sign in, he said.

The Democratic Party has had its primary-caucus system in place since 1988, but it has never before been the subject of as much attention as it was in this week's primary battle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton won with 50.85 percent of the primary vote, compared with Obama's 47.41 percent, helping to revive her struggling campaign. Delegates are divided based on that primary vote and caucusing.

Texans turned out in record numbers -- 4.2 million strong, representing 33 percent of registered voters -- and that led to long lines at polling places and other ripple effects that affected the caucuses.

The caucuses, known as precinct conventions, can't begin until everyone at the precinct has completed voting. Those in line when the polls close are entitled to wait in line to vote. In some places voting still wasn't done at midnight.

"Look at the tremendous turnout we had," said party spokesman Hector Nieto. "This was definitely a learning process for us. We understand that there were some problems."

But, he said, the party set up a call-in line in advance for local officials to contact with any questions or if mishaps arose. Some of the most common problems reported were the inability to find a precinct chairman, misplaced caucus printed materials or running out of sign-in sheets.

Caucus results are still being counted but already show that at least 500,000 voters participated in caucusing. The number could reach 1 million once all results are in, Nieto said.

The Clinton campaign, which has been less successful at caucusing this year than Obama's supporters, said it is still considering a legal challenge to the Texas process. At one point Tuesday night, Clinton campaign aides alleged that they'd received hundreds of complaints of mischief caused by the Obama camp.

"The magnitude of the complaints that we received was just unprecedented," said Clinton spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod. "All options are on the table."

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the Clinton campaign has complained in other states and has tried to diminish the importance of caucuses and questioned their integrity.

"We'll have a fair accounting of what happened at the caucuses," he said. "We're confident that's going to happen."

Texas has 228 Democratic delegates to send to the party's national convention. Of those, 126 are pledged delegates awarded proportionately based on primary voting and past party turnout in 31 state senatorial districts.

Forty-two at-large pledged delegates are awarded based on caucuses beginning with precinct conventions on election night, and 25 pledged party and elected official delegates are named at the state convention, based on the percentage of presidential support present.

There are 35 unpledged delegates: 32 so-called superdelegates, including members of Congress and leading party officials, and three others the state chairman appoints.

The Texas Republican Party also holds caucuses after the polls close on Election Day, but those are strictly used to select who gets to go on to high-level party conventions, not to divide up delegates.

The Secretary of State's Office said it received calls from some confused voters about the Democratic caucuses but that any change to the process would have to come from within the Democratic Party, which organizes its own delegate-awarding system.

Nieto of the Democratic Party said any changes would have to come "from the ground up" within the state party, as happened when the current system was put in place.

In Pharr, in the Rio Grande Valley, the caucus was run by people who had never caucused before. Rosa and Rolando Enriquez, both Clinton supporters, were two of the few who stuck around to the end. They said they felt like it was disorganized and not as exciting as they'd hoped.

"It was very disappointing," said Rosa Enriquez, 50. The couple's 12-year-old daughter Marely remained buoyant throughout.

"This is better than being at home," she said.

*Are you a politics junkie? We have more political gems on our four political blogs written by a White House insider, PhD and Eyewitness News reporters.

Copyright © 2023 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.