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At One Caucus, a Confusing Comedy of Counting Heads

Times Staff Writer

What happened Monday night in the cafeteria of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church is probably what you should expect when strongly opinionated, goodwilled people with not-so-great math skills gather to honor the democratic process.

Over the course of an hour and 50 minutes, the Democrats of Precinct No. 77 made their presidential preferences known in one of more than 1,900 Iowa caucuses. They weathered a halfhearted attempt to purchase votes for Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, a comedy of counting errors, and finally, a resolution -- with results that roughly mirrored the rest of their state’s.

Though the caucus was not due to start until 6:30 p.m., neighbors from the working-class, traditionally Italian neighborhood in Iowa’s capital began filtering into St. Anthony’s before 6. Participants ranged in age from 18-year-old Cheyenne Terry to 93-year-old Eleanor McConkey.

When it was time to begin, Michael Bolten, a burly 54-year-old former union president at a rubber factory, greeted his neighbors. Now a credit union manager, he’d reluctantly agreed only that day to act as caucus chairman, which would make him responsible for organizing the count and apportioning the precinct’s eight delegates.

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Before getting down to business, Bolten passed an envelope asking for cash donations for the local Democratic Party. “There’s nothing we can do ‘til 7,” he said, referring to the official time for the first vote.

Well, not exactly.

He was reminded that he needed to be formally voted in as caucus chair, so he opened the floor to nominations.

“I nominate Michael Bolten,” came a voice from the crowd.

“Thanks, cous’,” he replied. “Any other nominations?”

Michael Saylor nominated Davon Hoye, a retired bank worker who told a reporter she only really got interested in the process three weeks ago.

“Do you want to be caucus chairman?” Bolten asked. Hoye nodded. Bolten called a quick vote. Passing leadership on to the new chair, he looked relieved -- although he stayed close by to help run the show.

Next order of business: recording secretary. “I nominate my sister, Mary,” Bolten said. “All in favor, say ‘aye.’ ”

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Mary Ramirez, who works at a post office, walked to the front of the room. “I don’t even know if I can spell,” she mumbled.

At 6:52 p.m., people sat patiently, chatting, waiting for Bolten, Ramirez and Hoye to figure out what to do next. Most had split into partisan corners, under signs for their candidates.

Elisha Mannion, a ponytailed young man in a flag-festooned tie and a navy coat about three sizes too big, didn’t quite fit in among the jeans and nylon jackets. A Kucinich supporter, he tried to explain to the John Edwards group that Edwards and Kucinich had agreed to support each other if the other failed to produce enough caucus support to generate one delegate.

(According to Iowa caucus viability rules, each candidate must have at least 15% of the people in the room to be deemed “viable” and have a chance of getting any delegates. The magic viability number in this room: 14.)

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The Edwards supporters looked at Mannion as if he was a little bit out of his mind. They were not interested.

At 7 p.m., Bolten asked all “observers” -- two reporters and staffers for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards -- to stand in their own corner so they would not be counted.

Then he led the room in a count-off. The official number was 96 voters.

Later, the count mysteriously rose to 97, before it was determined that one of three undecideds was counted twice.

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“Now we have to do that math thing?” Hoye asked.

“Nope,” Bolten said. “First we divide into groups to see who’s viable.” The undecideds stood forlornly in the middle of the room.

Bolten, in the Gephardt group, beckoned to the undecideds. They didn’t budge.

An Edwards backer and a Dean backer moved to the center of the room, and appeared to be lobbying the undecideds. Is this allowed? observers wanted to know. Hoye had no idea.

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“We need everyone to get into their group so we can count,” boomed Bolten.

The undecideds suddenly made up their minds.

Bolten asked each group to count itself.

“They’re counting themselves?” asked a Dean observer from New York.

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Near the front table, a young Kerry observer who knew the rules helped explain them to Bolten, Hoye and Ramirez.

Confusion reigned. The crowd grew restless.

“Let’s count,” said the Kerry observer. “This is driving me insane.”

A few minutes later, a tally. Kerry had 38 votes, Edwards had 28; Dean and Gephardt each had 14; and Kucinich had two.

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“Someone told me two people just sneaked in through the back,” Bolten said. (Oops, they were just returning from the bathroom.)

Now Mannion and the other Kucinich guy had to decide what to do. Their candidate was not viable.

Mannion turned to Ramirez, who, as secretary, was trying to get a handle on the counts. Could he talk to the Edwards people to see if he could get them to support his candidate?

“Who ya gonna talk to?” said Ramirez. “You don’t exist.”

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“Can’t I persuade people to go with Kucinich?”

“No,” reiterated Bolten. “You’re not viable.”

“Am I allowed to use money to get people to come over to Kucinich?” asked Mannion, who did not appear to be joking.

“No!” Ramirez and Bolten yelled.

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So Mannion sidled over to the Edwards people. His friend went to Kerry.

Out came the calculators. According to the formula (number of votes times eight divided by 96), Kerry had 3.25 delegates, Edwards had 2.4 while the other two had one each.

A quick call to Democratic headquarters resolved the quandary: Kerry and Edwards would each receive three delegates.

“I don’t think I’ll do this again,” said first-time caucuser Ted Lesher, 66. Angel Alvarez Jr., 33, also a neophyte, agreed: “The voting booth is a lot easier.”

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But Eleanor McConkey, the oldest person in the room, was glad she came. “It’s better than staying home,” she said.


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