Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 4, 2016


Caucusing in Kansas

Husband Art and I are always interested in word origins, frequently stopping in the middle of conversations to investigate. That happened a few days ago when we tried to explain the Kansas caucus system to our German "daughter" Nadja, who was spending a few days with us.

But what is a caucus? Why don't we just say meeting?

"It looks like caucus might be a Native American word meaning 'adviser,'" Art said after consulting his smart phone.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary said J.H. Trumbull, a Native American language specialist, suggested the word might come from the Algonquin word "caucauasu" - meaning "one who advises." During our years as a fledgling country, clubs and organizations often did adopt Native American words.

It added that the earliest written evidence of the word is in a May 5, 1760 Boston Gazette advertisement:

And the said Committee of Tradesmen, do hereby exhort their good Friends, the Members of the old and true Corcas, who have from Time immemorial been zealously affected, to our ancient Establishment in Church and State, to behave at the ensuing Town Meeting with the usual Steadiness, and like honest Freeman to vote for WHOM THEY PLEASE.

Besides "corcas," they also referenced John Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts, who wrote in his diary in February 1763 about meetings of the "Caucas Clubb":

This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment ... There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garret to the other. There they ... choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town ...

Yet another Merriam-Webster suggestion mentioned John Pickering's 1816 publication, "A Vocabulary, or, Collection of Words and Phrases, Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America." He said the word originated in Boston and that it came from caulkers' meetings. Caulkers worked in shipyards water-proofing ship hulls.

Today, caucus refers to a meeting of the members of a political party where its candidates for office are chosen.

As a long-time teacher, I know that nothing exposes what you don't know more quickly than trying to explain it to another person. So I turned to the electoral-vote.com website in an attempt to further educate myself.

The national parties allocate each state a certain number of delegates based on complex formulas that take into account how many electoral votes the state has, how many party members are in that state's congressional delegation, and other factors. Generally, you get bonus delegates for doing well in your state. Some delegates are chosen by (congressional or state senate) district, some are chosen statewide at large, and some are ex officio delegates by virtue of being a governor, senator, member of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) or RNC (Republican National Committee), or holder of some important office. ... Both parties have both pledged delegates (people who have promised to vote for a certain candidate on the first ballot) and unpledged delegates (who can vote their heart on every ballot).

Hmm. Not so simple I guess! And it is complicated further by the fact that the state branch of each party has its own individual rules for how things operate within the state. Some states are winner-take-all, while others, like Kansas, apportion delegates based on caucus results. In some, delegates selected to vote for a particular candidate cannot vote for anyone else until the candidate releases them. But in others, such as Kansas, they are bound only for the first vote.

Because of these varying and changing rules, many states chose to do away with the caucus approach in favor of primary elections. Kansas was one of those, but it later reverted to the caucus system when the state government decided it was too expensive when the small number of people who actually voted was considered.

In Kansas, areas within each caucus site are designated for each candidate and people cluster into the area of the person they support. I asked two of my friends who caucused in 2008 in Manhattan to describe the experience:

We were at the '08 caucus, standing on the small, Hillary side of a lop-sided room of mostly Obama supporters. We loved Obama just as we love Bernie (Sanders), but still support Hillary. So many of us Baby Boomers have wanted to "be the change" and move our still-unfair world toward better health/balance/peace/wholeness, but I no longer believe it can happen as quickly as Bernie implies. I applaud the kids who are newer to this and still think electing a fast-change artist is possible ... I, for one, am still a romantic about politics and think my little voice is as important as anyone else's including a Koch brother (or maybe two). Two quotes I've used ... to keep me from deep despair ... have a bearing on why I caucus in Kansas: 1) "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." (Gandhi) and 2) "The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer." (Margaret Mead)."

So all of this came from wondering about the origin of a word ... and we still don't know its origin!




Comments? gloria@kansassnapshots.com.
Earlier columns from 2016 may be found at: 2016 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home