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Two-Stepping In It

At this weekend's state Democratic Party convention in Corpus Christi, there will be the usual speeches from candidates like gubernatorial hopeful Bill White, a debate over the party’s platform and a vote to determine its next chair. But one of the biggest fights could come when party officials reconsider the system that Texas Democrats use to award delegates in the presidential primary election process.

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The Texas Democratic Party’s state convention is under way in Corpus Christi. There will be the usual speeches from candidates like gubernatorial hopeful Bill White, a debate over the party’s platform and a vote to determine its next chair. But one of the biggest fights of the weekend could come when party officials revisit a two-year-old discussion of the “Texas Two-step,” the system Texas Democrats use to award delegates in the presidential primary election process. “That is a big problem the Texas Democratic Party has to consider, because it could very well be facing another lawsuit,” said Luis Vera, attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It’s just a matter of time.”

More than 2.8 million Texas Democrats came to the polls in March 2008 to vote in the presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It was the first time in decades that the party’s presidential candidate hadn’t already been chosen by the time the Texas primary rolled around. The excitement of the race drew thousands of new voters who discovered the Democrats’ arcane system for awarding delegates to presidential candidates. The two-step process assigns delegates based on both the number of primary votes that candidates receive and on the number of supporters who show up at precinct caucuses after the polls close. Thirty-five of the party's 228 total delegates are considered "superdelegates," and they can pledge to whichever candidate they choose. Two-thirds of the party's remaining state delegates are chosen based on primary votes. The rest are based on caucus turnout.

After the polls closed, about a million Democrats across the state deluged local caucus meetings, sometimes lining up for blocks and staying late into the night, to show support for their preferred candidate. Party officials were overwhelmed and unprepared. In the end, Clinton won the popular vote in the Texas primary, but Obama’s well-organized campaign drew more delegates from the caucus process. Questions about the fairness and implementation of the process abounded. “This tremendous enthusiasm and tremendous turnout showed the flaws in the system,” Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie subsequently said.

Newly active Democrats and even some longtimers called for overhauling the system or eliminating the caucuses altogether. Richie appointed state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to launch a statewide hearing process to make recommendations for improvements. West and his committee held hearings from El Paso to Nacogdoches, and they polled Democrats online. Many Democrats told the committee the process was too complicated, wasn’t well regulated and wasn’t representative of the voters’ decisions. In the online poll results, just 28 percent of those who responded favored keeping the current system.

The committee released its recommendations in 2009. The suggested fixes were minimal: things like changing caucus locations, making the rules clearer and using technology to speed up the caucus process. West’s committee did not recommend abolishing the caucuses. “The data shows that most people disagree with the method of conducting caucuses … rather than disagreeing with the system in general,” the committee reported. Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray said that since the 2008 primary election, only minor, mostly administrative, changes have been made to the process. West did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Those changes were not enough for many Democrats, though. And they’re planning to challenge the system again at this weekend's state party convention. “The current system decreases the voting strength of people who cast a ballot in the primary but who do not or cannot return to caucus at the precinct conventions,” said Scott Cobb, a state convention delegate from Austin.

Cobb and other opponents of the caucus process say it discriminates against minority and working-class voters and the elderly and disabled, who may be able to vote at the polls but would not be able to return later the same day for caucus meetings. They’ve started a website called changethecaucus.org. The system, they say, is also unfair for soldiers and others who cannot be in Texas on primary day to show up at the caucuses. “A new system with all the pledged delegates allocated based solely on the results of the primary would be fairer and more inclusive,” Cobb said.

The party has already lost a lawsuit over the primary caucus process. In 2008, LULAC sued, charging that the two-step system and the way the party allocates delegates diluted representation in districts with large Hispanic populations. A panel of three federal judges in 2009 refused to dismiss the lawsuit and suggested that the party’s process should be reviewed by the Department of Justice to ensure it didn't violate the Voting Rights Act. “All we want is what’s fair,” said Vera, the LULAC attorney who tried the two-step case. “We’re not asking for anything that’s unfair.”

Despite the lawsuit and calls for change from within the party, Vera said he expects the fight to continue until or unless party leadership changes. “It’s just a fight trying to get rid of it; change is not easy,” he said. But if there aren’t changes to the system, Vera said he expects the party could face another lawsuit based on claims that the system discriminates against soldiers stationed overseas.

Those who support the caucus system argue that it encourages participation and helps the party develop grassroots support. When voters come back after the election for the caucus, they can get involved in choosing their local party leadership and deciding who gets to go to party conventions.

The two-step process was born out of efforts by the Democratic National Committee to increase diversity. Through 1968, the candidate who won a majority of the primary votes got all the Texas presidential delegates. In 1972, though, the party adopted diversity quotas and mandated proportional representation. After a series of reform efforts and changes, the hybrid primary-caucus system was adopted in 1985, and it was first used in 1988. It was designed, in part, to ensure equal representation among urban and rural areas of the state, and until the fervor of the 2008 election, the process seemed to have worked.

“Some feel we should leave the process as is, and some feel it needs to be changed,” said Rose Salas, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee from Houston. “It’s very, very hard to gauge as to what the outcome could possibly be.”

Salas is on the temporary rules committee that makes initial recommendations for the two-step process and proposed changes to it at the convention. Salas said the committee has already received a number of suggestions, including doing away with the caucus system of awarding delegates. She expects the discussion could get pretty contentious. “I don’t ever assume anything is going to be smooth sailing,” she said.

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