Gabriella Hart of Roeland Park will attend her first Kansas presidential preference caucus on Saturday, March 5.
She isn’t quite sure what to expect.
“I’m just going to play it by ear,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”
The caucus process can be confusing, even for political veterans. Republican and Democratic officials in Kansas say their phones are ringing frequently with familiar queries:
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Where do I caucus? How are the votes counted? Do I have to stay for hours, or can I can cast a vote and leave?
“Some people don’t understand the caucus,” said Clay Barker, the director of the Kansas Republican Party. “Some people think you have to pay for it, or be an insider. Or they want to participate, but don’t take the step to find out how.”
Much of the uncertainty comes from a basic misunderstanding of what caucuses are.
They aren’t elections, at least as that word is commonly understood. Caucuses are meetings, designed to allow members of a political party to assemble with their neighbors and indicate their preferences for the presidential nomination.
Each party sets its own rules for caucus eligibility, participation, hours of operation and counting the results. Voting machines aren’t used. Democrats don’t even use a secret ballot.
Caucuses are free, although both parties use them to seek donations and build volunteer rosters. They are held on a Saturday because it’s easier to get volunteers to run the meetings and for people to show up.
Casting ballots would be much simpler and probably more popular. In New Hampshire, South Carolina, Missouri and other states that hold primaries, voters enter their polling places, mark their ballots and go home. Local and state officials count the votes and announce the results.
The turnout for primaries usually is much higher than that for caucuses. In 2012, roughly 31,000 Kansas Republicans cast ballots in the presidential caucuses. Two years later, more than 264,000 Republicans voted in the party’s Aug. 5 U.S. Senate primary.
But primaries are more expensive to hold than caucuses. By some estimates, it would cost Kansas taxpayers $2 million to hold a presidential primary. The caucuses don’t cost taxpayers anything.
The two parties will pay a total of roughly $140,000 to print ballots, buy insurance, rent schoolrooms and basements and publicize their caucuses.
Cost is the biggest reason Kansas lawmakers have shied away from presidential primaries. The state last held a primary in 1992, when Democrats picked Bill Clinton and Republicans chose incumbent George H.W. Bush as their parties’ standard-bearers.
Since then, it’s been off to the caucus. Here is what to expect Saturday:
The GOP will caucus first, starting at 10 a.m. There are 102 caucus locations across the state, usually one per county (although Johnson County will have nine caucus locations). Republicans can attend any caucus site, although participants are urged to caucus in their home counties, if possible.
Only Republicans can participate in the caucus. You must have registered as a Republican by Feb. 4 if you want to be a part of the vote, and you’ll be asked for a government-issued photo ID.
If you’re not on the voter list at the caucus site you attend, or don’t have proper ID, you can cast a provisional ballot that can be counted after the party confirms you are eligible.
After that, the GOP procedure is simple. After short speeches from attendees supporting the candidates, caucusgoers can mark secret ballots. Seven names will be listed: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. (The ballots were printed before Bush and Fiorina dropped out of the race.)
Caucus voters can cast ballots as “uncommitted.”
You need not attend the entire meeting to vote, and you don’t have to listen to the speeches. You can come in any time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., cast your ballot, then leave.
There are 40 convention delegates at stake in the caucuses. Three are national committee members, and they’re pledged to the top vote-getter in the statewide vote.
Twenty-five statewide delegates will be assigned proportionally to candidates who receive at least 10 percent of the vote. The remaining 12 delegates also are awarded proportionally, but by congressional district. Kansas has four congressional districts.
All Kansas delegates must cast their votes at the party’s national convention July 18-21 in Cleveland based on the caucus results, until they are released by the candidates.
Kansas Democrats hope for a big turnout Saturday, but there’s a potential conflict. The University of Kansas men’s basketball team plays Iowa State at 3 p.m., right when the party’s caucuses begin.
No problem, said Al Frisby, a Democratic organizer who plans to caucus. “Basketball patrons should actually attend our event,” he said. Hoops fans can also rest easy. The caucus probably will end before the Jayhawks’ game does.
The process to participate in the Democratic caucuses is a bit more complicated than the one for the Republicans.
Registration begins at 1 p.m. You must be a Democrat, although you can register your party affiliation at the caucus site — that means Republicans and independents who want to take part can register as Democrats on caucus day.
If you’re not registered to vote at all, you can do so at your caucus. First, though, a warning: You will need proof of citizenship if you’ve never registered in Kansas. If you lack that proof, you still can caucus, but you won’t be officially registered to vote in the state. You would need to follow up with proof later.
Democrats will caucus by state Senate district, not by county. Because some state Senate districts cross congressional district lines, some districts will hold two caucuses. Part of the 5th state Senate district will caucus in Leavenworth, for example, while part of it will caucus in Kansas City, Kan.
If you try to attend a caucus outside of the Senate district in which you live, volunteers will direct you to the correct location.
Registration ends at 3 p.m., and the caucus begins. After speeches, volunteers will ask participants to declare their presidential preferences by standing in different parts of the caucus location.
A candidate must have the support of at least 15 percent of caucusgoers in order to be considered viable. Caucusgoers who back a candidate with less than 15 percent support will be asked to leave the caucus, join with another candidate or join with uncommitted caucusgoers.
Party officials eventually will allocate 33 of Kansas’ 37 delegates based on the caucus results. Eleven will be awarded proportionally statewide, while 22 will be awarded by congressional district. Delegates must reflect caucus results on the first ballot at the party’s national convention July 25-28 in Philadelphia.
The other four delegates are “superdelegates” and officially unpledged. Democratic delegates are not bound to support any particular candidate, but the people picked are understood to be loyal to the candidates they represent.
Officials in both parties expect to report results early Saturday night. Neither side is predicting turnout.
“I’ve heard plausible, reasonable estimates everywhere from 40,000 to 75,000 (Republicans) in Kansas,” GOP director Barker said. He said the party has printed 60,000 ballots, but he warns that volunteers might have to run to the copy store for more.
For the Democrats, “I’m not expecting a long drawn-out process,” Gooch said.
Louisiana holds its presidential primary Saturday, and it’s likely to draw more attention from the candidates because of its higher turnout. Republicans in Kentucky and Maine also caucus March 5, as will Democrats in Nebraska.
But Kansas will stand in at least part of the presidential spotlight Saturday. Hillary Clinton has opened offices in the state. Bernie Sanders recently appeared in Kansas City but made several appeals to Kansans.
Republicans Trump, Rubio and Cruz might visit the state before Saturday.
Would-be caucusgoers in both parties may be nervous about taking part, but Republican and Democratic officials insist there will be plenty of guidance. Both parties have websites The Republican Party and Democratic Party each have websites with information about the caucuses, and party representatives will be on hand Saturday to answer questions if needed.
Gabriella Hart thinks she’ll do just fine. After all, she said, “it ain’t brain surgery.”
2016 Kansas caucuses locations
Shawnee Mission East High School, 7500 Mission Road, Prairie Village
Bentwood Elementary School, 13000 Bond St., Overland Park
Rhein Benninghoven Elementary School, 6720 Caenen Ave., Shawnee
Shawnee Mission South High School, 5800 W. 107th St., Overland Park
Prairie Trail Middle School, 21600 W. 107th St., Olathe
Shawnee Mission West High School, 8800 W. 85th St., Overland Park
Olathe South High School, 1640 E. 151st St., Olathe
Grace Church, 8500 W. 159th St., Overland Park
Trail Ridge Middle School, 495 E. Grand St., Gardner
Open Door Baptist Church, 3033 N. 103rd Terrace, Kansas City, Kan.
Paola Middle School, 405 N. Hospital Drive, Paola
Baldwin City Library, 800 Seventh St., Baldwin City
Southwest Middle School, 2511 Inverness Drive, Lawrence
Heritage Center, 109 Delaware St., Leavenworth
Basehor Community Library, 1400 158th St., Basehor
West Haven Baptist Church, 1000 West St., Tonganoxie
Democratic caucus sites, by state Senate district
District 2: Central Middle School, 1400 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
3: Eudora High School, 2203 Church St., Eudora
4: Kansas City Kansas Community College Technical Center, 6565 State Ave, Kansas City, Kan.
5a: Warren Middle School, 3501 New Lawrence Road, Leavenworth
5b: Oak Ridge Missionary Baptist Church, 9301 Parallel Parkway, Kansas City, Kan.
6: Turner High School, 2211 S. 55th St., Kansas City, Kan.
7: Roeland Park Dome, 4850 Rosewood Drive, Roeland Park
8: Blue Valley Northwest High School Activity Center, 13260 Switzer Road, Overland Park
9: Mission Trail Middle School 1001 N. Persimmon Drive, Olathe
10: Monticello Trails Middle School, 6100 Monticello Road, Shawnee
11: Blue Valley North High School, 12200 Lamar Ave., Leawood
12: Jayhawk Elementary School, 415 S. Sixth St., Mound City
13: Southeast High School, 126 W. 400 Highway, Cherokee
21: Shawnee Mission Universalist Unitarian Church, 9400 Pflumm Road, Lenexa
23: Johnson County Community College gymnasium, N. Campus Drive, Overland Park
37: Spring Hill Middle School South, 301 E. South St., Spring Hill