Jennifer Lawless

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–If she could have made it to Green River, Wyo., last Saturday, Mary Prather would have been a solid vote for presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

But the 72-year-old low-income retiree lives some 15 miles away from Green River–where the nearest Democratic nominating caucus was held–and had no way to get there. She doesn’t own a car, and her self-employed daughter couldn’t afford to take several hours out of her workday to chauffer Prather to the caucus site and back.

Prather stayed home, something some women’s rights advocates fear is happening to women in states that use caucuses to select presidential nominees.

Thirteen states and three U.S. territories use caucuses to select Democratic presidential nominees; Texas combines a caucus and a primary to pick the nominee.

“I think it’s undemocratic period, and it’s a little worse for women,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that researches women’s health and other issues of concern to women.

Caucuses–the word is thought to come from “caucauasu,” Algonquian for counselor–are public gatherings in which voters lobby each other on behalf of their preferred candidates. They usually take place weeknight evenings at a central location and last about three hours, although some, like Wyoming’s, are at other times.

Primary Voting More Flexible

Voting in a primary election, by contrast, can take place at any point during an entire day at neighborhood polling stations and rarely takes more than 30 minutes. Voters unable to participate in a primary can vote with absentee ballots beforehand; most caucus-goers must appear at the event on time to participate.

These conditions make it more difficult for many women–especially lower-income, single and older women–to participate, Zuckerman said.

“Obviously, 7 p.m. on a Tuesday is nearly impossible for single moms and not good for a lot of married moms, especially those who can’t afford babysitters,” she said. “They are feeding their kids, making sure they do their homework and getting them to bed.”

Lower-income women–who hold the majority of the country’s low-wage jobs–may not be able to take up to three hours off later shifts to attend a caucus. And Zuckerman said that older people–also predominantly female–may be unable to venture out at night, when most caucuses are held.

“It’s an issue for women given the kind of multiple responsibilities they have and the constraints on their time,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick.

Clinton backers think these conditions at least partly explain her poor performance in caucus states. There, older women and those with lower-paid and less-flexible jobs are some of the candidate’s core supporters, said Maren Hesla, director of a get-out-the-vote program at EMILY’s List, a Washington-based political action committee that backs Clinton and other pro-choice Democratic female candidates.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, enjoys strong support among young and affluent voters, a constituency Hesla said is more suited to caucuses because they have more free time and more money to afford transportation and child care. “It’s just easier to free up a three-hour block if you’re 19 and not married and don’t have kids than if none of those things are true.”

Obama Holds Big Caucus Lead

Of the 13 states where caucuses are the sole means of casting a vote for the Democratic nominee, Obama has won 12 and Clinton one.

The remaining state, Texas, illustrates Zuckerman’s point with its “two-step” process.

Clinton won the state’s March 4 primary by 51 to 47 percent but is projected to lose the state’s caucus, which was held the evening of March 4. Results are still unofficial due to complications from overwhelming turnout, but Obama is projected to win 56 to 44 percent. The primary results determine the allocation of about two-thirds of the state’s 193 “pledged” delegates, those committed to backing a certain candidate at the national party convention. The caucus yields about one-third of the state’s pledged delegates.

The state also carries 35 unpledged, or superdelegates, who are free to back whomever they choose, regardless of the outcome of either the primary or caucus.

Arguing that caucuses are too small to be representative and too haphazard to be accurate, Clinton’s campaign threatened to sue Texas Democratic Party over its two-step system before the caucus took place.

Clinton–who has won 15 out of the 30 primaries held this year–has also voiced anger over an unfair advantage for Obama in other caucus states.

“You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard,” Clinton said in a Jan. 11 report on ABC News. “That is troubling to me. You know in a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time, they’re disenfranchised.”

Others attribute Obama’s victories to his superior efforts in the field.

“The main advantage Obama has had with caucuses is his organization,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of political science at Brown University in Rhode Island who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006. “It’s more difficult to organize people to get them to commit to spend two to three hours than it is to get them to vote.”

Analysis Absent

Entrance or exit polling has been conducted in only two caucus states, Iowa and Nevada, according to CNN. The data do not analyze support for the candidates by older women or their income brackets.

The data that are available indicate that women’s caucus participation in both states was significantly higher than men. In Iowa, where Obama won, women were 57 percent of the electorate. In Nevada, where Clinton won, women were 59 percent of the electorate.

“It’s sort of hard to say they’re not there,” Walsh said. “It may make it harder for them to get there, but they’re showing up.”

But Zuckerman said women face difficulty even if they do make it to the event.

Research shows that women are less comfortable expressing opinions in public and may find the caucus process, in which participants publicly barter over the candidates, more intimidating than casting a ballot in private, she said.

That is especially true of lower-income and less-educated women, who disproportionately back Clinton, Zuckerman said. But college students–who form a core constituency for Obama–thrive in such settings, she said.

Lawless disagreed, saying caucus settings suit women fine. “If you can get them to the site it’s probably a better experience for them because it involves more debate and deliberation and communication,” a situation that appeals to many women, she said.

“The caucuses themselves aren’t these dirty fights,” she said. “Really, they’re an opportunity to hear about what each side says about his or her candidate.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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