The Texas Primacus–uh, Caucary

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The Washington Post has a couple of interesting stories today about Texas’ bizarre system for choosing its 228 Democratic convention delegates. It’s a combination primary (which Clinton’s team says will be good for her, given her longer relationships in the state) and caucuses (which Obama expects to win, if earlier contests in this season are any indication). The caucuses, where 35% of delegates are awarded, begin shortly after the polls close on primary day, March 4. And to vote in the caucus, you have to have already voted in the primary.

The whole system reflects the post-apocalyptic landscape that the state has become for Democrats. It was designed to give a lot of power to party insiders–of whom there were fewer and fewer over the past 20 years. These caucuses have been so sparsely attended in recent elections, I am told by a Clinton campaign strategist who is trying to figure all of this out, that it was not unheard of for fewer people to show up than there were delegate spots being given out, so caucus-goers would be reduced to calling friends and asking them if they were free and wanted to come down and become a convention delegate.

Obviously, with so much on the line in a close Democratic nominating contest, poor attendance is not likely to be a problem this year. But unlike Iowa, which has a long history of organizing caucuses, and Nevada, which had many months to prepare, Texas is just now beginning to grapple with running these caucuses in the face of what promises to be a huge wave of new voters. Meanwhile, the campaigns are making, quite literally, tens of thousands of calls into the state to look for volunteers to be caucus organizers. They have good reason to be scrambling. As the Post notes:

The caucuses have also given rise to a separate concern, according to several top Texas Democrats interviewed last week. Because the state’s Democratic Party has been out of power for years, leaders have struggled to find precinct chairs to oversee all of the 8,000 locations where caucuses will be held.

If it is time for the caucus and there is no precinct chair, party officials decided, the task of overseeing the vote will fall to the first person who collects the packet of materials used to run the caucus.

That should be fun to watch.

Confusing enough yet? That is just the beginning. Unlike in other states, where delegates are awarded along congressional district lines, Texas has a system where they are awarded along the lines of state senate districts, but they are far from evenly apportioned. Instead, districts get bonus delegates for heavy Democratic turnout in general election contests for President and Governor–contests that, in recent years, haven’t been competitive in Texas, so overall turnout is low. The biggest beneficiaries are places like inner-city Houston and latte-liberal Austin. (The Lone Star Project has this breakdown.) This means that Latino districts of South Texas will get far less than their share. Here’s how the Houston Chronicle explains it:

In the heavily urban, African-American districts of state Sens. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Royce West of Dallas, a good voter turnout in the past two elections means a combined total of 13 delegates are at stake in the two districts on Election Day.

Obama nationally has been winning eight out of 10 black voters, according to network exit polls.

But in the heavily Hispanic districts of state Sens. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen and Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, election turnout was low, and a combined total of seven delegates are at stake.

Clinton has been taking six of 10 Hispanic votes nationally.

So, a big South Texas win might not mean as much for Clinton as a big win for Obama in the two black districts.

Wait, wait, there’s more:

An additional 42 at-large delegates are awarded at the state convention in June.

Those delegates are pledged to individual candidates based on participation that begins in precinct caucuses on election night and ends in senatorial district caucuses at the state convention.

The state convention also elects 35 superdelegates and an additional 25 pledged-party and elected-official delegates.

Garcia, the state representative and Obama supporter, said his candidate is bringing in the staffers who helped win the Iowa caucuses, knowing that not all is decided in the primary election.

The only good thing you can say about this system is it beats the old way of doing things. I guess. Wonder how they will be voting in Box 13.

UPDATE: The Lone Star Project has come up with this delegate calculator, which also has demographic information and voting history of the different districts.

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