“I was surprised to see you get into it like that; you went from zero to sixty in about five seconds,” said my friend David.
“I was surprised, too!” Still am. I’ve stayed the hell away from politics for most of my life, never participated in student council, haven’t been vocal about voting rights or otherwise been a political activist in any way. (Oh, except for a few public meetings in Emmet County, Michigan where I spoke out against all-terrain vehicles and someone shouted at me, “Why don’t you move to Mackinac Island, you bunny-hugger!”)
Enter the 2016 Democratic Caucus. A couple of weeks ago I found myself complaining on Facebook that I’d have to travel to Homer if I wanted to vote in the caucus. Then I found out that, after some redistricting in 2013, my town is no longer in the same district as Homer, and I’d actually have to travel to Kodiak if I wanted to participate. I can’t seem to find a map of District 32 anywhere, but it stretches all the way from Kodiak to Yakutat, including Prince William Sound (Chenega Bay, Tatitlek and Cordova but not Whittier or Valdez), the southeast Kenai Peninsula (Seldovia, Port Graham, Nanwalek, and Halibut Cove but not Seward or Homer), and the west side of Cook Inlet (Tyonek and Beluga). In effect, the little communities are cut off from their travel hub cities, which are in different districts. This time of year, there’s limited or non-existent ferry service, even for the towns normally served by the Alaska Marine Highway System. For someone from the “across the bay” communities here on Kachemak Bay, we’d have to fly or boat to Homer, then fly to Kodiak, with a plane change in Anchorage. Travel costs would be about $830 round trip, not including an overnight stay in Kodiak. By contrast, round trip to Homer is $125. Why couldn’t we have been included in the district with Homer?
The shape of the district makes me wonder if some gerrymandering may have gone on when they were drawing the boundaries. Lumping those little villages and towns together makes sense if your constituents are humpback whales… or if you want to keep the remote fishing/subsistence/native communities from voting.
Never before had I been in a situation where the obstacles to voting seemed insurmountable. The 2016 presidential race has been one for the books, and even though it’d be nice to just tune it all out, I hadn’t expected to not be able to participate. And being told you’re not allowed out onto the playground is a good motivator. The Republican primary had already happened (as part of Super Tuesday on March 1st), so I called up the Alaska Democrats and asked how to make it so my neighbors and I could vote. They told me we could organize a mini-caucus, but that someone would have to volunteer to organize it. I had three part time jobs, plus two volunteer gigs, happening at the moment, so I had to think about it for a few hours. People have fought and died for the right to vote. By comparison, my “sacrifice” — a little bit of time — was miniscule. I called them back and said I’d do it. A friend in town, Kate, said she’d help.
What exactly is a caucus, anyway? Without doing any research at all, here’s my instinctive take on it. It’s an archaic holdover back to the era when politics happened in pubs, hotels, and bar rooms in whistlestops along the campaign trail. Candidates are assigned a spot in the room, with the words “…and in this corner…!” Voters literally take sides with their candidate: Melvin by the smoky fireplace, George next to the spittoon, Thomas near the out-of-tune piano. Heavy bags of coins are tossed onto tables, people hoot and holler for others to come over to a different corner, change sides. Somebody, hopefully sober and honorable, counts the number of people standing by each candidate, and sends a telegram in Morse code back to the party chair, who tallies it all up and declares a winner. And that, my friends, is pretty much exactly how it still works today.
Our mini-caucus took place at ten a.m. on a Saturday, and as far as I could tell no one had been drinking. In fact, in an effort to keep it simple, Kate and I decided not to provide coffee or cookies and we almost lost half of our voters because of it. One person did leave on a coffee run and nearly missed being counted. We also had to wrap it all up by eleven so the parents could get to an Easter egg hunt with their kids. Hillary was by the west window, Rocky de la Fuente by the overstuffed City Council chairs, Bernie next to the water cooler. We passed a tweed hat to cover the cost of the room rental, but otherwise no monies were exchanged.
We had 19 voters — an excellent turn-out for a community of fewer than 300 people. Only four voters were already registered Democrats, so everyone else had to re-register to be allowed to participate. I didn’t keep a close eye on the political affiliations, but as the voter registration cards appeared I did notice a few Us, at least one G, a couple of Is. I didn’t see any Rs, Ls, Vs, or Ns. These stand for Undeclared, Green Party, Independence Party, Republican Party, Libertarian Party, Veterans Party, and Nonpartisan. Fifteen out of nineteen participants, including both organizers, were not Democrats before the caucus. Our mini-caucus was not only on the edge geographically, but I guess we’re out there politically, too. Independent, undeclared, and green. Interestingly, fifteen out of nineteen people stood in the corner with Bernie.
In the final tally, Alaska’s District 32 had a total of 312 voters, and will have thirteen delegates at the Alaska State Convention on May 14th. Because of our mini-caucus, Seldovia will be represented by one of those delegates. Even though we are small, we really did make a difference, and our votes counted toward the final outcome at the State level.