The Democratic View: Caucusing and Listening

By Kathy Zahler

Everybody has heard of the Iowa Caucuses, even if most of us only have a vague sense of what goes on there. Surprisingly few of us know that here in Tompkins County, villages and some towns still use the old-fashioned caucus as a means of choosing candidates to run on the ballot in spring or fall.
In January, Republicans and Democrats from the villages of Groton and Dryden met in individual caucuses to select the trustee and mayoral candidates who will be on the ballot March 21.
The way a caucus works is simple: Any person registered with the party who lives within the municipal boundaries may attend and vote. Caucus attendees sign in and select a Chair and Secretary of the caucus. Sometimes, people at the caucus have already determined that they would like to run for office. They are then asked to speak to the caucus. Other times, candidates emerge from the caucus after a period of discussion. Occasionally, the caucus is paused for a brief time – perhaps a day or two – and reconvened once potential candidates are found.
Once the caucus identifies potential candidates, attendees vote, either by hand and voice vote or by paper ballot if there are multiple candidates. The caucus is closed, and names and addresses of the winners are submitted to the Board of Elections.
In the towns, some candidates are selected using the petition process. Would-be candidates identify themselves to their town committees, and then they and their friends and committee members carry their petitions door-to-door to get the prescribed number of signatures that makes them a viable candidate. That number, and the format of the petitions themselves, are determined by the Tompkins County Board of Elections.
However, Republicans in the Town of Ithaca and Democrats in the towns of Danby, Dryden, Enfield, Groton, Newfield and Ulysses still use the caucus to find candidates for town board, town supervisor, highway superintendent, town justice, and town clerk. Because town votes happen in November, the dates for those caucuses will range from June to September.
How can you make sure that you participate in this local, small-d democratic activity in your town? Caucuses are advertised, but the ads tend to be in small print in the legal section of the paper or on a tiny poster in village or town halls. If you want to make sure you are invited, contact your town committee chair ( or call the Board of Elections (607-274-5522) to find out the date and time of your upcoming caucus. We also post Democratic caucus dates on our website
Just because a candidate is chosen by caucus does not mean that the candidate won’t also show up on a petition. If the candidate wishes to run on a second ballot line – say, “Protecting Dryden” in Dryden or “Caroline” party in Caroline – they may circulate petitions to win that line on the ballot.
A caucus is a good way not only to make your voice heard in a local contest, but also to learn more about the issues in your village or town.

The Listening Meeting on Saturday, January 28 brought more than 185 people to the Tompkins County Library. We had to turn people away because the Borg Warner Room was packed full. Although not everyone could voice his or her ideas out loud at the meeting, all had the opportunity to write ideas on cards and leave them for the committee. A subcommittee will use the input to formulate a 2017 political action plan for the local Democratic Party.
We were invigorated by the numbers of people there who have never been particularly politically active or involved in Party politics before. They are fired up and ready to work in this year of local elections.
A video of the event is up on our website at You can listen to hear what your fellow Democrats are thinking and feeling about the direction of the party.
Local politics is all about listening. Candidates go door-to-door and listen to the ideas of their constituents. Constituents listen to the suggestions their candidates make about the direction of the village or town or county. If you live in the villages of Groton and Dryden, that process has already begun. Listen closely, and choose wisely on March 21.
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Kathy Zahler is director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.