While most everyone’s attention is focused on the June presidential primary, in which California is expected to play an unusually important role, another often-overlooked election occurred in San Luis Obispo County this weekend: a caucus to choose the 24th Congressional District’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
On Sunday, Democratic voters filed into two meeting places in San Luis Obispo to choose who will represent them at the Democratic National Convention in July. Similar caucuses were held in Santa Barbara.
The Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center auditorium was filled on Sunday with Bernie Sanders supporters and their gear: T-shirts, hats and posters emblazoned with catchy slogans — think “Feel the Bern” — that have become a signature of the senator’s millennial-heavy campaign.
Across town at the IBEW Hall, a markedly more reserved crowd listened to speeches from several local Hillary Clinton supporters lobbying to be her delegates from this district, while multiple prints of the same blue “Hillary 2016” poster dotted the walls.
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At both sites, potential delegates shook hands, swapped stories and tried to become one of the select few who would get a front row seat to history by participating in this summer’s convention.
For many, this part of the election cycle is a relative mystery.
I figured they’d be some kind of exclusive thing, but it turns out you just have to run, so I thought I’d run.
Robert “Bob” Canfield, Mission Prep senior
“I know I’m always trying to explain to my friends why we have a caucus if we also have a primary,” said Pat Harris, chair of the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party. Harris was the chief organizer of the Clinton caucus.
What it comes down to, she said, is choosing the people who actually will cast the physical votes determining who the Democratic presidential nominee will be.
Each state sends a certain number of delegates to the convention, depending on the results of that state’s primaries or caucuses, and those delegates are who actually cast the vote to determine the presidential nominees.
California sends 317 district-level delegates to the Democratic National Convention. These delegates are pledged to vote for certain candidates depending on the percentage of the vote each presidential contender receives in each congressional district in the June 7 primary.
The 24th Congressional District will send a total of six delegates to the convention: three women and three men. How many of them are Clinton delegates and how many are Sanders delegates will depend on how the district votes June 7.
Hillary Clinton has secured about 2,165 delegates, including 520 superdelegates, while Bernie Sanders has about 1,357, including 39 superdelegates.
There’s a hefty price tag to being a delegate. The California Democratic Party estimates that the cost of attending the convention is between $3,600 and $4,100 per delegate, and delegates must pay that themselves.
At Sunday’s San Luis Obispo caucus for Sanders supporters, 41 people were campaigning to be Sanders delegates, including Heidi Harmon, who unsuccessfully ran for a California State Assembly seat in 2014.
“I want to be a delegate because I want to take a stand,” Harmon said Sunday. “I’m ready to really stand up for my rights and for my children’s future, and stand up for the candidate that I know is going to stand up for me. And I know that is Bernie Sanders.”
Harmon noted that she had conducted mostly a social media campaign to raise awareness that she was running to be a delegate, though she said many other contenders were using more word-of-mouth techniques to persuade people to show up on Sunday and vote for them.
One of those contenders was Robert Canfield, 18, a senior at Mission Prep. Canfield said he has hosted phone banks and canvas events, including making about 2,000 phone calls to help support Sanders’ campaign.
Canfield said he first became aware of the delegate process after seeing lists of how many delegates would be attending the convention following other states’ primaries.
“It was just like, ‘I wonder how you get to be those people,’ ” he said. “So I just looked it up. I figured they’d be some kind of exclusive thing, but it turns out you just have to run, so I thought I’d run.”
Across town at the Clinton caucus, 38 people were contending to be delegates.
It’s democracy — sometimes it’s a little crazy, but it’s great to be a part of it.
Patt Harris, San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party chair
“I have been a Hillary supporter for a very long time — since she was the first lady and I was in my 20s — and I just always felt like she was a very impressive person,” said Michelle Shoresman, one of the people campaigning to be a delegate. “I also really think it is important to be involved in the political process. I have an 8-year-old son, and I think it sets a good example that if you believe in something, you should do something about it.”
Mike Heyl, a retired teacher, said he wanted to become a delegate because of Clinton’s public education and environmental policies.
“National conventions are a microcosm of all walks of life, people from all walks of life,” he said. “And there will be policy discussed, and I think people in education need to be part of that discussion as it happens at the national convention.”
Heyl noted that he had also been chosen as a delegate in 1996, for former President Bill Clinton’s campaign, and was extremely happy to potentially continue that legacy through Hillary Clinton.
“To be a part of that process is probably just the highlight of my political life,” he said. “Full circle is definitely how I would describe that.”
The result of the San Luis Obispo caucuses will be combined with the tallies from the Santa Barbara ones, and the top six contenders for each candidate will be put on a certified list to be submitted to the state. Those results likely won’t be certified for several days, Harris said.
Though the process is complicated, Harris said she thinks the end result is ultimately worth it.
“It’s actually democracy at its most fascinating,” she said. “I think it’s fun. It’s democracy — sometimes it’s a little crazy, but it’s great to be a part of it.”
How California’s Republican delegates are selected
Though the California Democratic Party chooses its delegates through caucuses, the Republican delegates are chosen in a different manner.
Potential Republican delegates are chosen by the Republican presidential contenders. Those who wish to be delegates apply directly to the candidates, pledging that if chosen they will vote for that candidate. The candidate’s campaigns then make a list of approved delegates and submit it to the California secretary of state.
Each congressional district gets three delegates, for a total of 159 district-level delegates. There are also three unpledged delegates — the Republican chairman and two national committee members — who vote for whomever they want, and 10 at-large delegates who go to the candidate who receives the most statewide votes.
Depending on the results of the June 7 primary, the approved district-level delegates for the winning candidate will go to the convention. California’s primary is a winner-take-all system for the Republican party, meaning the candidate who wins a district gets all of the delegates from that district, rather than just a portion of the delegates, as with the Democratic delegates.