Instead of holding a primary to select the Democratic candidate for Congress, the Virginia 5th Democratic Congressional District — including Rappahannock County — has decided to hold a caucus-convention. In April, delegates will be elected at caucuses held in each of the 23 districts (21 counties and two cities) to go to the convention in May. There are four Democratic candidates seeking the nomination: Leslie Cockburn, Ben Cullop, Roger Dean Huffstetler, and Andrew Sneathern. As caucuses are not common in Virginia, we decided to ask Mary-Sherman Willis, the chair of the Rappahannock County Democratic Committee, to explain how it will work and why the Virginia 5th District Democratic Committee decided to select the nominee by caucus-convention instead of by a primary.
Q: Can you explain to us what a caucus is and how it works?
A: There are a couple of different types of caucus; the one we are holding is a meeting to select delegates who will then go to a district convention to select the Democratic nominee to run against Tom Garrett in the congressional election on November 6th.
Each participant in the caucus will decide which of the four candidates he or she wants to support, and the delegates they select will then go on to the 5th District Convention in Farmville on May 5th.
Q: When is the caucus?
A: The caucus takes place on April 14th at the Washington School House, 567 Mount Salem Avenue, Washington, Va. Doors will open at 9:30 a.m. to allow people to sign the necessary form and socialize. There will be ample parking and the site is handicapped accessible. Doors will close at 10:30 a.m. and the caucus will begin. You must arrive on time — if you are late you will lose your chance to participate.
Q: Who is eligible to participate?
A: Any Democrat can participate in this caucus, as long as they’re registered to vote in Rappahannock County. Before entering, participants will be asked to sign a declaration form pledging to support the Democratic candidate in November, whoever that will be. We’ll check their names against a voter’s roll, in the same way as if they were voting at the polls in a primary or election. Anyone who wants to be a delegate for a particular candidate should fill out a Delegate Pre-filing Form and submit it to the Rappahannock Democratic Committee before 5 p.m. on April 7th. You can find that form and information on how to submit it online at www.RappDems.org, and at the Library.
Q: Why is the 5th District having a caucus instead of a primary?
A: The 5th District Democrats decided that the strongest candidate would emerge through a caucus and convention process rather than a primary election. They considered several factors in making their decision: the high voter enthusiasm and turnout in Virginia last November, the extremely large size of the 5th District (larger than the state of New Jersey!), and the fact that there are four candidates running. This gives each of the 23 counties and cities in the 5th District a strong voice in picking a candidate. It also means that each of our four candidates have been working hard to build support in the farthest corners of the District, especially in the rural areas that have sometimes felt overlooked in past elections.
Q: What can participants expect?
A: Generally, the assembly will divide into groups according to which candidate they support. Heads will be counted and delegates will be picked. Rappahannock gets to send four delegates and two alternates to the convention in May. We’ll determine the number of delegates representing each candidate by the size of their group in the caucus.
Q: How will the number of delegates for each candidate be determined?
A: Delegates will be allocated proportionally based on how many supporters each candidate receives. Any candidate receiving fewer than 15 percent of the caucus attendees will get no delegates and his or her supporters will be released and can support another candidate or leave. Then each candidate group casts ballots to pick which of its pre-filed delegates they want to send to the convention. The alternates (who are backup delegates in case an elected delegate can’t attend) are picked according to the next highest number of votes.
Q: When will the results of the convention be known?
A: Results should be announced a few days after the May 5th convention. Then it’s on to the general election, and sending a Democrat to D.C. to represent Virginia’s 5th Congressional District.