KENNEWICK — Heather Duncan of Benton City hoped to be elected a delegate at Saturday's Republican caucuses in Kennewick so she could go on and represent her community at GOP county and state conventions.
But Duncan and an estimated 1,500 other people who showed up at the Three Rivers Convention Center hoping to participate were told about 10:30 a.m. -- some after standing in line for 90 minutes -- that they wouldn't be allowed in.
"I had planned support for Ron Paul (in the straw poll)," Duncan told the Herald. "But my bigger issue is I would have been a delegate for my community. There's a whole piece of the county that has no representation going forward."
About 1,500 people were allowed into the caucus rooms at the convention center, where most of the Benton County caucuses took place. About 1,700 were able to cast votes in the straw poll, according to the results.
Caucuses in Paterson and Prosser also contributed to the Benton County straw poll total.
Benton County Republican Party members who organized the caucuses said they predicted -- and prepared -- for 2,000 people to show up and participate.
Their jaws dropped when they saw people packed into the convention center's hallways and spilling outside.
"We where overwhelmed," said Tony Benegas, who ran the Kennewick caucuses. "It's tough because it's all volunteers -- nobody gets paid to do this."
Benegas said it quickly became apparent there weren't enough volunteers to check everyone in -- which in most cases involved looking up their voter registration on a list provided by the county Auditor -- and helping them find their precinct number, and that the rooms they booked were filled to capacity.
The party was under pressure to finish by 11:30 a.m. so results could be tabulated and turned over to the state party.
"We did pull the leadership aside and said, 'What are we going to do?' " Benegas said.
The only apparent choice was to close the doors and turn people away, he said.
"I am extremely sorry we could not accommodate everyone," he said. "I apologize to those folks who we had to turn away. We fit in as many as we could, but we had more than we could physically fit in the rooms."
An estimated 900 people participated in the 2008 Republican presidential caucuses.
Franklin County Republican chairman Curtis Mohr told the Herald caucuses in Pasco, Basin City and Connell were well-attended and went smoothly.
There were no reports of anyone being turned away at any of those locations, Mohr said.
The Pasco caucuses at Chiawana High School drew about 650-700 participants.
Even though Saturday's caucuses were just the start of a process toward selecting the state's delegates for the GOP national convention in August, the straw poll taken along with the caucus is the last indicator of where voters' allegiances lie before the Super Tuesday contest in two days.
Despite being the only Republican presidential candidate who didn't make a personal appearance in the Tri-Cities leading up to the GOP caucuses, Mitt Romney won the straw poll in Benton and Franklin counties Saturday evening.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting in the two counties, Romney was the favored candidate of 43 percent of Benton County caucus participants and 40 percent of those in Franklin County.
Rick Santorum, whose campaign rally in Pasco on Thursday drew about 800 people, came in second in both counties, with 25 percent of the vote in Benton County and 28.5 percent in Franklin.
Ron Paul, who drew a crowd of 1,500 supporters in Richland on Feb. 17, found a spot in third place with 18 percent in Benton County and 19.5 percent in Franklin.
Newt Gingrich, who visited Kennewick on Feb. 23 and spoke to an audience of about 600, was in fourth place with 12 percent in Benton County and 10 percent in Franklin.
Washington will send 43 delegates -- including three party officials are who not committed to any candidate -- to the GOP national convention. Those delegates won't be selected until the state convention that starts May 30 in Tacoma.
Saturday's caucuses involved the selection of delegates by local precincts -- the smallest voting units made up of neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods -- to send to the April 7 county conventions.
The delegates who go to the county conventions in turn will select delegates to send to the state convention.
Delegates at this stage of the game aren't bound to any candidate, and support for a candidate isn't firmed up until the national delegates are selected.
But for local voters, the caucuses represented the only chance they will get to voice a preference for a presidential candidate since the state is not having a presidential primary this year.
The Legislature canceled the primary to save money on election costs, because Democrats traditionally have selected all of their delegates using caucuses, and Republicans have selected half of their delegates through caucuses, rendering the primary mostly an informal vote for a nominee.
Ray Swenson, a Richland lawyer, criticized local GOP officials for poor organization and said the results today should be invalidated.
"I think it's illegal," Swenson shouted to a gathered crowd, many of whom were filming him with cellphone cameras. "The Republican party leadership is taking away our freedom."
Swenson told the Herald he may file a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the caucus results.
"I think it's unconstitutional," he said. "Our right to vote is the most fundamental right in the Constitution. ... This is exactly equal to walking into a polling place and being told, 'We've run out of ballots. We didn't expect this many people. Go home.' "