The 2016 Democratic caucuses were such disasters in 14 states that 10 of them decided to switch to primaries. Wyoming, like Iowa, is one of the four that stayed the course.

As we all know now, Iowa’s choice badly backfired. The “first in the nation” became a national political laughingstock last week when it took three days to report final vote totals, which no one trusted.

If there’s a saving grace for Wyoming Democrats, it’s that Iowa set the bar so low that just reporting in a timely manner will make the Equality State caucus look like a roaring success.

But Wyoming also has its 2016 caucus to atone for. It was a nightmare. 

I’ve never been a fan of caucuses, precisely because they result in the kind of outcome Wyoming Democrats had four years ago. Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton, 56-44%. But she walked away the state delegate winner, 11-7.

How could that happen? Well, as the Wyoming Democratic Party’s then-executive director Aimee Van Cleave explained, caucus rules required three different ways to calculate the results. Sanders and Clinton split the 14 “regular” delegates, but four “superdelegates” were chosen by party officials and all of them backed Clinton.

Van Cleave reported receiving harassing phone calls, and someone let the air out of her tires. A post on the Wyoming Democrats’ Facebook page suggested she should be burned alive.

Recriminations were the order of the day. Van Cleave’s mistreatment was blamed on Sanders’ supporters. Backers of the Vermont senator, meanwhile, complained about absentee ballot forms sent to registered Democrats by his opponent — along with a letter from former President Bill Clinton — that had the Wyoming Democratic Party’s post office box listed as the return address.

That trick wasn’t allowed under the rules, because it gave the impression the state party favored Clinton. Van Cleave said she asked for and received an apology from Clinton’s camp, but the damage was done: Hillary trounced Bernie in absentee voting.

Still, when the final caucus votes were counted, Sanders won. And then he received four fewer delegates. On MSNBC, “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough cracked that it was a “crushing victory” for Sanders and wondered why Democrats in Wyoming had even bothered to vote.

“The system is so rigged,” Scarborough said.

Today, Wyoming Democratic officials say they are confident in the process they will use during the party’s April 4 statewide caucus. Wyoming won’t be using a new smartphone app developed by the company Shadow, which was blamed for most of Iowa’s problems.

Wyoming turned instead to software developed by RealBallot, which has already been tested in elections throughout the country. After the Iowa debacle, Nina Hebert, the Wyoming party’s communications director, told the Casper Star-Tribune, “At this point we are excited for our caucus and expect everything to run smoothly and have our results reported in a timely manner.” 

If the software does have problems, Hebert said, the party has three fail-safe back-up reporting methods ready to go.

That’s comforting, but I also remember reading Iowa Democratic officials’ optimistic prediction that its 2020 event would be “the most accessible, most transparent and successful caucus ever.”

As a Wyoming Democrat I’m hopeful the party will pull everything off without a hitch, but am skeptical about the switch to a ranked-choice system. A manual ballot will allow voters to list up to five candidates, in order of preference.

Votes at the county level will be counted in stages. If one or more candidates gets less than 15% of the first-choice vote, the lowest-performing candidate is taken out of the running. Second-choice votes will then be allocated among the remaining candidates. The process will be repeated until all remaining candidates have more than 15%.

If a registered Democrat is unable to attend the April 4 caucus, there are two other ways to vote. Voters can mail in absentee ballots by March 20, or  go to the designated station in each county on March 28.

I realize this system is designed to winnow candidates to get the ones most acceptable to the majority. But there’s an easier way to do this. It’s called a primary, and most states employ one for presidential races.

Call me old-fashioned, but what’s wrong with everyone filling out a ballot, counting them and declaring a winner? Candidates’ delegates are still apportioned according to the percentage each receives.

In any event, I will be going to the Laramie County Democratic caucus on April 4 to see how the new system shakes out. It’s really the only choice for me. I never return anything mailed to me on time, and the only place I’ll be on March 28 is at my fantasy baseball league’s draft in Casper. I’m a loyal Democrat, but I do have my priorities.

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Why is it imperative that Wyoming Democrats participate in the caucus? Because this is the one time their presidential vote is meaningful. This ultra-red state’s three votes in the electoral college (abolish it!) will automatically go to the Republican nominee. The caucus allows Democrats to at least have a small role in choosing the nominee.

Wyoming will send 13 “pledged” delegates and four superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July. That’s a small slice of the 1,990 needed to win the nomination on the first ballot, but let’s not forget that every vote really does matter. Wyoming’s tiny delegation put John F. Kennedy over the top at the 1960 convention.

The national party changed the rules after 2016, so this year 771 superdelegates — chosen by party officials — won’t vote unless no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot. Then the magic number becomes 2,375 delegates to win.

What’s the chance the whole shebang will be a free-for-all? Pretty good, considering there are still 11 presidential hopefuls at a time when it’s more important than ever for the party to unite. To have a legitimate shot to defeat President Donald Trump, Democrats must muster a get-out-the-vote drive that tops every previous election. 

What does my party have to pin its hopes on? Well, the progressive wing I belong to has two candidates, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Moderates are looking at Joe Biden (who took a nosedive in Iowa), Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. If none of those five capture the party’s fancy, billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have mountains of cash to stay in the race all the way to Milwaukee. 

Talk about a fractured field. Moderate pundits say progressives can’t beat Trump, and vice versa. Democratic mega-donors are reportedly terrified that no one in this bunch can win and threatening to find another candidate to back. John Kerry, who says he won’t run again after winning the nomination but losing the general election in 2004, has already been run up the flagpole and lowered. Unless someone emerges as a clear front-runner soon, more bad ideas are sure to emerge.

I’ve already changed my candidate of choice three times, and we’re not even to the caucus stage yet. Electability matters, but so do core principles. Yet, I believe I share this belief with most of my fellow Democrats: We’d vote for our neighbor’s dog before we’d cast a ballot for Trump.

I remember watching MSNBC two weeks before the 2016 election. All the pundits could talk about is whether Clinton would get 300 electoral votes or 350. Four hundred? Yes, a few agreed, even that was possible.

Let’s face it, American politics were turned upside-down by Trump four years ago, and nothing has been normal since. The world is likely to get a whole lot crazier in the next 10 months. Color me excited — and extremely nervous.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Over the last four years, some significant changes have occurred in the Wyoming Democratic Party. None of them are really acknowledged in this op-ed – and that’s a real shame. I want to discuss just a few.

    First, Wyoming Democrats (unlike our counterparts in Iowa) would prefer a state-run primary. We’ve passed resolutions and testified to legislative committees on that point in the past. It’s not going to happen in 2020. So, we’ve changed the process to look much more like a caucus/primary hybrid. That’s thanks to the work of some incredibly dedicated volunteers.

    It’s unknown how many Democrats have participated in past presidential caucuses in our state, but I’d be surprised if it ever broke 15%, at least over the last couple of decades. This year, nearly 100% of Wyoming Democrats will be given the opportunity to participate. The vast majority will receive a ballot in the mail (we’re taking the process to them). There are several ways to return it (including via the USPS), but it’s important to note that each and every vote cast will be done on an identical paper ballot. As a result, we’ll have an accurate number of how many people caucus in 2020.

    This is new, so we’re not exactly sure what to expect regarding the participation rate, but I’m hopeful that it will top 50%.

    Also important to mention is that all four DNC members from Wyoming, myself included, supported reforms at the national party level to dilute the influence of superdelegates. Those reforms passed – we no longer have a vote in the first round at the convention. If the voting goes to a second round, I’ve personally pledged to vote for whichever candidate receives the most delegates in the Wyoming Caucus.

    To take it a step further, last October, all four of the DNC members from Wyoming signed a pledge of neutrality in the race for the nomination. None of us will be making an endorsement during the primary – that’s a promise.

    These are just a few of the many changes that have occurred since 2016.

    Are we optimistic about the process this year? Absolutely. Especially if the other option is pessimism. Will there be a hiccup or two? Probably. But we’re taking necessary steps to ensure that staff and volunteers have the training and resources they need to be successful.

    Mr. Drake is right that this needs to go better/differently than it did in 2016 – but if he was paying better attention, he’d already see some of the steps we’ve taken towards making needed changes and improvements.

  2. Another interesting observation regarding “$uperdelegates” worth noting. It appears that the chosen ones now prefer that we commoners refer to them collectively using one of these more euphonius appellations : “un-pledged delegates” or my personal favorite “automatic delegates” . This new less pretentious binomial nomenclature is a brilliant twist in that still allows the DNC the unfettered ability to $upervise and $upersede without appearing unduly $upercilious.

  3. The caucus system is outdated and screwed up. No one should get more delegates than the one who got most votes. Bull. Also, I have a job six days a week. I cannot get off for an entire day to vote for someone the higher ups in my party disagree with me on only to give the votes to whomever they want. Bull. I only registered Dem to vote for Bernie. Because of the bull caucus system I will not be remaining a Dem after this voting season no matter what happens. Going back to independent. At least I have some feeling my vote counts, even though it probably doesn’t in Wyoming. That is another reason many others don’t bother voting at all. No feeling their vote counts, at all.

  4. I believe the State Convention will be in Powell, not Cody. On another note, Kerry Drake, it would be nice for you to do a bit more positive reporting on the WYODEMS and what we are trying to do instead of piling more crap on top of us. I expected more from you. As a county chair, I feel very positive that this Presidential Primary Caucus will go well as an interim change for what may come in future years. Give us a break will ya?

    1. I’d prefer that the party honchos simply implement a primary system. I had hopes that they were moving in that this year, but I have not yet (02/17/20) received a mail ballot.

      I attended exactly one caucus over the last 18 years. It was put on by the democrats. It made me sick. It seemed as though it was a gathering of conservatives. Plus it cost me gasoline and wear-and-tear on my old vehicle for the 40+ mile trip each way.

      Guess it really doesn’t matter since the neoliberal dems (neoliberals) have become as conservative on real issues as the reps. Hillary and Obama proved that quite adequately, and Billy Boy was no better. Trump was nothing more than the next logical step after Obama of a regression that began with the accession of Truman to the throne.

      I have come to just accept that my vote in Wyoming counts for nothing. I knew that going in, though.

  5. It is a bit of a stretch to claim that Wyoming is one of four states to retain a caucus. The system in place for 2020 looks way more like a party-run primary than a caucus.

    Every Wyoming Democrat will receive a paper ballot in the mail, which they can return either by mail, by dropping off at an early voting center, or at the caucus. People participating in the caucus will also use the very same paper ballot (which does incorporate ranked-choice voting). I am on the committee setting this system up, and I expect probably 85-90% of all voters will return the ballots before caucus day, and only 10-15% of Democrats will actually participate in the caucus debate and vote after that debate.

    The purpose of the mail-in voting system is to increase the number of Democrats who can participate in the process. We expect a very large increase in the numbers of votes cast, even while we expect participation in the caucus portion of the system to decrease. We have confidence that our vendors, who have been running elections all across the country for more than 20 years, have the expertise to do this right, in a completely open and non-partisan manner.

  6. One of the very few events I have witnessed in Wyoming that would almost qualify as a Miracle was the 2008 Park County Democratic Caucus in my town of Cody.

    Nearly 600 Dems caucused in Cody … the Obama tsunami. Six hundred. This in a county that had less than 2,000 registered Dems compared to the GOP’s 10,000+ party register roll. So it goes without saying Park County is a strong Republican bastion (e.g. voted 70 percent for Trump in 2o16). The followup general elections cycles ? Not so much. The Dem vote for Hillary was in the 9 percent range of total electorate.

    Prior to the 2008 Obama wave, it was difficult to get more than a handful of Democrats into the same room anywhere in Park County for any reason, it seemed. This year the Wyoming State Democratic Convention will be held in Cody , in June. I don’t expect a 2020 miracle , but there may be some great song and dance show numbers , possibly an old time tent rally .

    Stay tuned.

  7. I participated in the Laramie County Dem caucus in the ’80s and the ’90s. I thought it gave me a real opportunity to have a “hands on” in the political process. I also thought the work that was done on adopting a party platform at the caucus was very valuable. I’m sorry it seems things have changed.