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Washington Residents Get Lost in Democratic Process

Times Staff Writer

Saturday morning, the Democrats of Precinct 41-BEL-0101 met in the gymnasium of Sunset Elementary School on the south end of this upper-middle-class suburb near Seattle.

They came in from the rain, about 35 of them, and sat around two folding tables under a basketball hoop. The youngest was 19-year-old Ross Kirshenbaum; the oldest, 75-year-old Bob Kubby. Most had never been to a caucus before.

In the course of an hour, the group -- participating in Washington’s Democratic caucuses -- made its presidential preferences known and apportioned its four delegates.

It was democracy in action. And if what happened at Sunset is an indication of what occurred at 6,500 other caucuses across the state, it wasn’t entirely pretty.

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Organizers didn’t expect quite so large a turnout.

Members of 18 precincts -- about 500 people -- squeezed into the gym. Many were left standing. Each precinct held its own meeting, but the overall din made it difficult to hear the instructions read aloud by precinct captains.

At 10 a.m., precinct captain Sharon Mast used her loudest “fifth-grade-teacher voice” to gather the members of 41-BEL-0101 and lead them step by step through the process. Everyone had to sign a sheet declaring a candidate choice.

The tally went this way: Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry received 17 votes, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean got 12, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich 1, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards 1, and four were uncommitted.

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At 10:30 a.m., David Ortland, a 48-year-old climate research scientist, stood on a bench and made a short speech for Dean, trying in vain to raise his voice above the noise. Some people strained forward to hear; others gave up, leaned back and looked around.

“Howard Dean has a record of standing up to Bush; Howard Dean has a record of accomplishment,” Ortland said.

Afterward, Jodie Demuth, a computer science specialist, got up and spoke for Kerry, but she had the same trouble. Only a few of her words came through: “Kerry is the only man who can go toe to toe with Bush.”

During the speeches, members of other precincts continually approached Mast for help with the caucus rules.

“They’re not clear,” one man said.

“How are we supposed to do this?” another said.

The gym was full of faces that appeared lost.

Mast explained that if a candidate had support from fewer than 15% of those gathered, he would be deemed “not viable.” Under that rule, both Kucinich and Edwards were thrown out of her precinct’s competition.

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As 11 a.m. neared, Mast held another vote. The results: Kerry, 20; Dean 12; and two uncommitted. One person insisted on staying with Kucinich.

At this point, the calculator was brought out. It was determined that Kerry had earned 2.28 delegates, while Dean had earned 1.37 -- but the rule book says the larger fraction after the decimal point gets rounded up. So in the end, both Dean and Kerry received two delegates.

After the vote, the Dean people broke off and talked, while the Kerry people did the same. Many seemed stunned by how quickly the whole thing was over.

“It could have been organized better. It was almost funny,” said Kirshenbaum.

Said his father, Bob: “Hey, democracy is messy.”


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