Friends were made, ballots counted. Ditch the caucus anyway

By the time it was over, there were just eight of us left.

Two volunteer precinct officers and six other voters, including my next door neighbor. And more than 500 absentee ballots.

The Democratic presidential caucus on Sunday has been broadly and roundly criticized, particularly for events that happened in some of the state’s largest communities, including Portland.

The line outside of the Democratic presidential caucus at Portland's Deering High School on Sunday. Darren Fishell | BDN

The line outside the Democratic presidential caucus at Portland’s Deering High School on Sunday. Darren Fishell | BDN

There were long lines, people who didn’t have an opportunity to register and vote, and outrage among elected officials, Democratic leaders, advocates and people who faced long lines, cold waits and a confusing process.

In short, some people were very angry.

But before digging too deep into what went wrong, the anger and disappointment are obscuring the fact that what happened on Sunday was amazing for state Democrats.

Unlike New Hampshire, unlike Vermont, unlike Massachusetts and unlike other states that have held primaries or caucuses this year, Maine Democrats set a turnout record.

More than 48,000 Democrats, including thousands of brand new party voters, caucused on Sunday, breaking the record set in 2008 when President Barack Obama was on the ticket.

In Portland alone, roughly 2,000 new people either registered to vote for the first time or affiliated with the Democratic Party, creating an 8 percent increase in just one day.

And it was clear in my precinct. I volunteered as secretary and helped to answer questions and take in-person absentee ballots for people who didn’t want to or couldn’t stay for the actual caucus.

Some people showed up ready for a fight and would have found one even if there had been no lines. Others were rightfully upset that they had to wait in line for three or more hours. One woman videotaped us. At least one other seemed convinced that we were trying to steal the election. (The precinct went 71-29 for Bernie Sanders. Consider me the worst thief ever.)

But the overwhelming majority of caucus goers were glad they had made it inside and were excited to participate, especially the folks who were voting for the first time.

They got to our desk and filled out their ballots excitedly, even though many had fingers that needed to warm up before they could write. They asked questions about the ballot, about the process and they doubled-checked to make sure that their ballot would be counted. They had waited; and they wanted to be heard.

After a long day — I was at caucus for nearly nine hours, others were there much longer — I came away energized by the dedication, determination and stamina of my neighbors who worked really hard to vote.

Of the eight people who stayed to caucus, six were elected to be delegates at the Democratic State Convention in May.

When it came time to count the votes, the three Sanders supporters and the five Hillary Clinton supporters sat around the same table, and we counted all the absentee ballots together.

By the end, as people posed for pictures, the anger and suspicion were gone. The openness and transparency of the process put those fears largely to rest.

Now to what happened to make Portland so challenging.

Turnout exceeded expectations and the national trend, and more absentee ballots were requested and returned than at any caucus in history. About 20,000 people requested absentee ballots, and about 13,000 returned them by the deadline.

The Portland City Clerk’s office went above and beyond the law, staying for most of the day to register new voters and help people enroll in the Democratic Party. But the increase in new voters was tough to manage.

And the very nature of a caucus requires everyone to be in the same place at the same time so the meeting can start. That’s a lot different than an election.

Splitting caucus sites into multiple locations would have spread the clerks and required a lot more volunteers. It’s really a question of numbers. Breaking Portland into wards or districts would still create several of the largest caucus sites in the state.

Maybe this all sounds like the ramblings of an establishment coot making excuses. I can live with that.

For the eight of us that hung tight on Sunday, I think we’ll probably remember the day that we sat together, a few friends and a few strangers, and counted ballots.

But I’d ditch the caucus. Even with a big turnout, only 15 percent of Democrats participated. For Republicans, it was only seven percent.

The smoothest caucus badly limits participation. With funny rules, long lines and the time requirement, Maine’s caucuses may make it too hard to vote. Despite the cost, a primary is a better choice.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at