Why is it taking so long to tally caucus results in Texas?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 6 2008 5:28 PM

What's Taking So Long in Texas?

Waiting for the caucus results in the Lone Star State.

A caucus site in Texas. Click image to expand.
Democratic caucus and primary voters in Austin, Texas

Hillary Clinton won the Texas Democratic primary on Tuesday, but even two days later we still don't know who won the ensuing caucus. Just 41 percent of the state's precincts have reported unofficial caucus results, and news reports on Thursday said the state was still counting its caucus votes. What's taking so long?

Snail mail. According to the rules of the Texas Democratic Party, the chair for each election precinct doesn't have to mail local caucus results to the state party headquarters in Austin until the third day after the convention, Friday. Party officials tried to speed things up this year; they set up an 800 number so that chairs could call in results on Tuesday night, instead of dropping them in the mailbox. But, ultimately, they couldn't force anyone to actually pick up the phone.

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Caucuses in Texas were supposed to start relatively late anyhow—at 7:15 p.m. CST or whenever the last ballot was cast at the poll—but there were so many voters that some conventions didn't get going until after 9 p.m., by which time TV networks had already forecasted winners in other states. When meetings finally did start, some fights broke out between Obama and Clinton supporters; in Dallas County, one chairwoman fled to the police station.

All this attention on the state may have caught party officials—and precinct leaders—by surprise. Presidential nominees have historically emerged by March, so few—in or outside Texas—have paid much attention to the state's primary, much less clamored for same-day caucus results. This is the first year in a long time that the Democratic caucus has mattered, and the state didn't have much time to prepare for March 4. For instance, the party didn't decide to install an automated phone system to receive caucus results until last month. And with more than 1 million Democrats, including many neophytes, participating in the caucuses, the complicated process might have caused extra confusion.

By contrast, Iowa, a state long accustomed to being in the limelight, spends months recruiting and training its chairmen and chairwomen, stressing the importance of early results. Starting in 2004, local leaders phoned in caucus outcomes as soon as delegates had been awarded, giving us the news about two hours earlier. (They used to wait until the delegates were selected.) This year, Nevada's party officials, with some help from Iowa, successfully drilled into volunteers the importance of timely caucus results. On Jan. 19, most locations reported results by midafternoon, and 98 percent by the end of the night.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Hector Nieto of the Texas Democratic Party. Thanks also to reader Leesa Sherborne for asking the question.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.