Democratic Party Primer

Party Structure

One of the goals of This Land Rising is to put progressive candidates in office across Washington State. In order to win elections, we must “build the bench” by identifying, developing, and supporting electable candidates. It means educating progressive voters and increasing their engagement with our democratic system of government, especially at the local level. And for right now, it means keeping a Democratic majority in the Washington State House and achieving a majority in the State Senate.

Use this Primer to learn about how the Democratic Party works. And just as important, commit to joining the Party. Click here to identify your legislative district, and then search for its corresponding Democratic Party organization online. (They all seem to use the following nomenclature – 34th Dems, 32nd Dems, or the name of the county – Thurston Dems etc.)

 

Basic Structure of the Democratic Party: Washington State Focus

The structure of the Democratic Party is fairly consistent from state to state. Members typically join at the Legislative District or County Organization level by attending a meeting and paying dues. (Dues are generally flexible and minimal, e.g., $34 in the 34th LD.)

The Precinct Level

For voting purposes, every person in the U.S. lives within a Precinct. It is the lowest governmental unit and may only contain several blocks in an urban area while being comprised of a much larger geographic area in rural districts. Counties draw precinct boundaries based on registered voter counts and other parameters (Washington State has 6,600 precincts).

A Precinct Committee Officer (PCO) represents each precinct at their local Democratic Party organization. PCOs are the essence of grassroots politics. It is their job to get to know their neighbors, educate undecided or swing voters, and make sure Democrats in the precinct register and turn out to vote. There is a Republican PCO for each precinct as well.

The primary route for becoming a PCO is by running for election on the August Democratic primary ballot every 2 years. (More on this process to come).  Appointments are made between elections to fill PCO vacancies left open. You can become a PCO between election cycles by contacting your legislative or county district Democratic Party organization to determine if there is a vacancy. Typically, each district contains multiple PCO vacancies. In many cases, you may serve as the “acting” PCO for a district even if you live outside its geographical boundaries, though “acting” PCOs have only a voice, not a vote.

PCOs elect Party leadership and can vote on a panel of suggested candidates from which an elected body will choose to fill state legislative and local vacancies. Placing candidates in vacancies is a powerful tool as incumbents have a distinct advantage in winning elections.

THE LOCAL LEVEL – LEGISLATIVE DISTRICT (LD) OR COUNTY DISTRICT

A legislative district is the geographic area encompassing citizens represented by a state legislature. There are 49 legislative districts in Washington State, each represented by two house members and one senator.

The local level of the Democratic Party Structure is either a legislative district or a county district.  Where you live determines the hierarchy (urban or rural). Each of the 49 LDs or 39 County Districts contain multiple Precincts.  For example, the 34th LD encompassing West Seattle, Burien and Vashon Island has 210 Precincts (therefore 210 PCOs).

 

Relationship of Legislative Districts (LDs) & County Districts  

Smaller geographical groups feed into the larger geographical groups for voting and decision-making. In urban areas like Western Washington and Spokane in Eastern Washington, the Party hierarchy puts the County Democratic Party above the LDs, because there are many LDs in one County. King County, for example, has 17 LDs, and Spokane County has five LDs. In rural areas across the State, the LD is above the County District because there may be many Counties in one Legislative District. As the diagram indicates, the County Districts and the LDs both report to the state (see “WSDCC” on the diagram — Washington State Democratic Central Committee).

 

Participation at the Local Level

Once you have joined the Party at the LD or County District level, you have a voice and, depending on the organizational structure, you may have a vote. Representation at all levels of the Party is through an elected hierarchy starting at the local level. That hierarchy can be confusing to a newly active member. One could pay dues, vote at their local LD level, and not be a member at their County District level. One could also join and pay dues at the County level, but not have a vote there, because their LD Board Chair represents them. Alternatively, one could pay dues and not have a vote at either the LD or County level, as some organizations only allow PCOs to vote.   

Your local level should have by-laws explaining their particular structure – hopefully posted online. Once again, local organizations may vary, but in general:

 

PCOs vote for:

  • Local level Board members

Depending on individual district structure, PCOs may also vote for:

  • Directing campaign contributions
  • Endorsements
  • Resolutions/Platform
  • Budget

Members in some districts are able to vote for:

  • Endorsements
  • Directing campaign contributions
  • Resolutions
  • Big budget items

Who makes decisions and how decisions are made can vary drastically from one County and Legislative District to another. The common thread is that those that show up make decisions. By becoming a member of your local party, serving as a PCO, or even running for an office you can affect change from within. Those who show up make change!

LDs and Counties generally meet monthly and their budgets are comprised of membership dues and money from fundraising. Budgets can include important decisions such as which candidates to support financially. For example, a local organization might decide to spend its budget in support of a race in a different LD because its own district is not in play or at risk.

Biennial reorganization elections are generally held in January at the LD/County District meeting level. Only PCOs can vote to select the Chair, Vice Chair, delegates, alternates and their State Committeewoman and State Committeeman. These are important positions that can make a big difference in how your district is represented at the higher levels. While PCOs vote to select these positions, in most jurisdictions, you do not need to be a PCO in order to run for an elected office within the local party.

  • The Chair leads the Board and represents the LD at the County Organization (urban) or LD (rural) as a voting member of the executive board. Vice Chair, Second Vice Chair, Secretary and Treasurer are as implied by title.
  • The State Committeewoman and State Committeeman represent and have voting powers for their LD or County organization at the Washington State Democratic Central Committee (WSDCC). For example, they recently voted to replace the WSDCC State Party Chair.

 

THE STATE LEVEL – WASHINGTON DEMOCRATIC CENTRAL COMMITTEE (WSDCC)

The WSDCC is the governing body of the Democratic Party of the State of Washington. The members consist of the State Committeeman and State Committeewoman elected by the PCOs of your local LD and/or County District.

The WSDCC also has Special Members who can vote when in attendance. Special Members have no proxy. The Special Members are:

  1. The National Committee members elected from the State of Washington.
  2. The Governor of the State of Washington if the Governor is a Democrat.
  3. United States Senators from the State of Washington if Democrats.
  4. United States Representatives from the State of Washington if Democrats.
  5. The Leader of the Washington State Senate Democratic Caucus.
  6. The Leader of the Washington State House of Representatives Democratic Caucus.
  7. A representative of the Young Democrats of Washington.
  8. A representative of the Federated Democratic Women’s Clubs.
  9. Elected officers of the WSDCC.
  10. The Chair or Vice Chair of the Organization of County and District Chairs.

The WSDCC typically meets four times a year in locations around the state. Every two years the WSDCC elects a Chair, Vice Chair and other officers during a reorganization meeting.  The current Chair is Tina Podlodowski. The next reorganization will occur in early 2019. In Washington, the Chair of the State Democratic Central Committee is a paid position (this is a good thing as that is not the case for many states). The WSDCC also typically employs an Executive Director, Party Affairs Director, Finance Director and Data Director.

The WSDCC has historically been concerned mainly with state-level candidates and federal elections, but whether this strategy is maintained after the 2016 election remains to be seen. In previous years, the WSDCC has been involved in key local races — particularly races for the State Legislature in competitive districts that could be of significant importance in ensuring Democratic majorities in the Washington State Legislature.

The Chair hires staff and manages a central office, currently located in Seattle. Depending on current needs across the state and the availability of funds, the WSDCC may staff offices in Spokane, Yakima, Vancouver or other target areas outside of the Seattle area on an ongoing basis (not just in election years). The work performed by the WSDCC between elections is an important part of building relationships, raising awareness of key issues and laying the groundwork for successful campaigning.

Every two years, the Party runs a Coordinated Campaign to target Democratic voters and get out the vote. This Coordinated Campaign typically merges at least partially with the campaigns of Democrats running statewide. In Presidential elections, the Coordinated Campaign provides the “ground game” necessary to win Washington State for the Democratic candidate.

 

THE NATIONAL LEVEL – DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE (DNC)

The DNC is composed of the Chairs and Vice Chairs of each state Democratic Party committee and over 200 members elected by Democrats in all 50 states and the territories. Each State Democratic Party organization sends representatives to the DNC. The DNC is responsible for creating the platform of the Democratic party and does so at the biennial reorganization based on the vote of and input from members all over the country who are there representing their state, county and legislative districts.

The DNC also takes a lead position in fundraising during the election cycle and distributing funds to campaigns, as appropriate. Tony Perez is the newly elected National Chair, and his victory was the culmination of a three-month campaign to revive the Party in the face of the Trump victory.  All the major Chair candidates argued for the importance of the DNC focusing on more than just the presidential elections and argued against any turn towards moderation. The “50-state strategy” initially implemented by former DNC Chair Howard Dean is being revisited to ensure the Democratic party fights for Democratic candidates across the country — even in areas considered firm Republican strongholds — with the goal of spreading the Democratic message in areas that may have been ignored.