Decoding The Kansas Caucuses
Kansas hasn’t held a presidential primary election since 1992. State officials say the estimated $2 million price tag is just too high. Instead, Republicans and Democrats across the state gather in convention centers, schools and churches for caucuses. Ahead of the March 5 caucuses, KMUW’s Sean Sandefur explains how this complicated system works.
Rows of historic brick buildings in Delano are busy on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Cars drive through a roundabout and jockey for parking spaces during the lunchtime rush.
Inside the Vagabond, which doubles as a coffee shop and bar, patrons enjoy cappuccinos and stiff cocktails. Anthony Osu, who is in his early 30s, sits at the bar.
Osu was born and raised in Wichita. He doesn’t know much about the caucus system in Kansas, but thinks it sounds interesting.
“Meeting with a group of people that have similar interests, ideologies, political views—yeah, caucuses is something that I’d be interested in,” Osu says.
He admits that he has no idea how they work, which is common.
Sitting in a nearby booth is Cory Whitlock, who’s 26.
“[Are caucuses] where we get to decide who’s the nominee for a certain party?" he asks.
It’s a common question. People have a general idea of what the purpose of a caucus is, but not how the process works. It’s rare to find someone who’s actually been to one. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running against Hillary Clinton, and John McCain was running against Mike Huckabee, only about 3 percent of registered voters participated in a caucus in Kansas.
So, how do the Kansas caucuses even work?
Kansas receives 40 Republican delegates and 37 Democratic delegates in the presidential primary election.
That’s similar to Oklahoma and Nebraska, but far less than more populated states like California and Florida.
Kansas only represents 1 percent of the national vote for the Republican ticket, and less than 1 percent of the national vote for the Democratic ticket.
“Right now, we have 103 different locations where we will have a caucus site,” says Kelly Arnold, Sedgwick County clerk and Kansas Republican Party chairman.
The Republican caucus is run in a similar fashion to a primary. On March 5, registered Republicans who are eligible to vote in the November elections will gather at their local caucus site. In Sedgwick County, that’s the Century II Convention Center.
“We actually have two options for voting," Arnold says. "Those that want to partake in the festivities and listen to the speeches and be engaged in that aspect, you’ll be in a room, you’ll be able to hear everything and at the end, we’re going to pass out ballots, you’ll be able to vote and go on your way.”
Arnold says it’s possible that a candidate like Marco Rubio or Ben Carson will attend, but many of the speeches will come from representatives of their campaign. Participants will also have the option to skip the speeches, vote, and leave. Once this is completed at sites across the state, the votes are sent to Topeka where they’re tallied.
Arnold explains that since Kansas is a proportionate state, its 40 Republican delegates are divided up based on the results of the caucus. This means that if Ted Cruz were to get 50 percent of the votes in Kansas Republican caucus, and Donald Trump were to receive 25 percent, Cruz would get 20 delegates and Trump would get 10.
A candidate must receive at least 10 percent of the caucus votes in order to receive a delegate. When that’s decided, these delegates travel to the Republican National Convention in July and vote for the candidate they’re assigned to.
If their candidate drops out of the race, the delegate is free to vote for any candidate. Arnold says it sounds complicated, but for people who love their party, it’s worth it.
“It gives them the opportunity to come down and actually be a part of the process, to meet other people who have the same vision and values, to be able to cast a vote and really feel like they’re actually doing something, which they are,” Arnold says.
Over on the Democratic side, it gets even more dense.
Lee Kinch, a local lawyer and chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, was an Al Gore alternate in 1988, a John Kerry delegate 2004 and a Barack Obama delegate in 2008--and 2012. Needless to say, he's a seasoned Kansas Democrat.
His party will also hold their caucuses on March 5. There will be a caucus in each state Senate district--47 locations across the state.
Instead of casting votes for a certain candidate, the Democratic caucus is more of a popularity contest.
“The doors will open at 1 p.m., and the registration will conclude at 3 p.m. Then, all the participants will be given an opportunity to form candidate preference groups,” Kinch says.
Candidate preference groups are basically clusters of supporters. In Kansas, they will organize in groups for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Once these groups are formed, a head count is taken, and that head count is essentially the vote. Each caucus location gets a certain amount of delegates based on the population of their senate district.
For example, the 16th State Senate District, where Kinch lives, is allotted nine delegates.
This means that based on the size of the organized preference groups, Hillary Clinton could receive six of those delegates, and Bernie Sanders could receive three.
Once this is decided at each caucus site across the state, the delegates are added up and an overall winner is announced.
The state eventually sends 37 people to the Democratic National Convention who will vote in proportion to the caucus results in Kansas. Again, this means that Hillary could have 27, and Sanders could have 10.
It’s a complex system, and Lee Kinch says that in Kansas, it’s not always easy to summon the Democratic troops come caucus day.
“When you’re an official in the Democratic Party in a state that is as red as Kansas, it’s a challenge," he says. "There’s not a question about that.”
But Kinch says that he sees new faces, as well as young people, at each and every caucus he attends. He says it’s a wonderful party building tool, and that attending a national convention as a delegate is a real honor.
For more information on primaries and caucuses, check out NPR's Election 2016 Calender.
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