Without a contested presidential primary, Democrats are expecting fewer caucus-goers than four years ago. But Sunday's caucuses are still a necessary first step to becoming a delegate to the party's national convention in September.

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What a difference four years makes.

An estimated 250,000 Democrats packed presidential caucuses in Washington state in 2008, driven to turn out by an unpopular war, a heavyweight battle for the nomination between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and the historic prospect of putting an African American in the White House.

“It was very exciting to be a Democrat,” said longtime party activist Alison Sonntag of Port Orchard.

Democrats are expecting far fewer caucus-goers this Sunday afternoon, perhaps a total of 40,000, says state party Chairman Dwight Pelz. The nominee is a foregone conclusion; he lives in the White House.

“Obama is going to be our candidate whether I show up to caucus or not,” Sonntag said.

But there’s still work to be done. The process of electing delegates to the national conventions starts Sunday. Resolutions will be submitted for consideration in the party platform. And there are issues — from the war on drugs to the war in Afghanistan — to be discussed.

“When Democrats get together they like to debate stuff,” Pelz said.

And the bruising GOP presidential primary may help motivate Democrats. “The contested Republican primary has shown the face of the opposition,” said Tim Nuse of West Seattle, chair of the 34th District Democrats.

Above all, says Michael Lofstedt, a caucus coordinator in Kirkland, this year’s gatherings are a call to action. “If you want to get involved,” Lofstedt said, “this is how.”

Starting at 1 p.m., Democrats will meet across the state, organized by 6,790 precincts. In many cases, multiple precincts will congregate in a single place, such as a school or church.

To attend, you must be a registered voter and sign a form saying you’re a Democrat. Those who are not registered to vote may do so at a caucus, according to party officials. Those who will turn 18 years old by Nov. 6 may also participate.

Caucuses will be based on precinct boundaries from last year. However, when the delegate-electing process moves to legislative and congressional district caucuses, new boundaries established during recent statewide redistricting will be used.

If your precinct already has a precinct committee officer, he or she will run the caucus. If yours doesn’t have one, then you’ll choose one. Electing delegates will not start until 1:30 p.m.

Unlike 2008, choosing delegates will not be determined by who you pledge to support for president. Instead, it will likely center on what you’ve done for the party, how well you’re liked by fellow Democrats, and how badly you want to become a delegate.

Based on previous uncontested presidential primaries, Lofstedt said, electing delegates may just be a matter of picking whoever is willing to move on to the next steps.

“I don’t think it will be contentious at all,” Sonntag said.

On Sunday the state party hopes to elect as many as 26,697 delegates and an equal number of alternates — if that many people show up.

At the later legislative district and county gatherings, the number of delegates will be winnowed to 1,400 with 700 alternates

After that, there are two ways to become one of 121 delegates to the national convention in Charlotte, N.C., in early September. The first chance comes at congressional district caucuses Sunday, May 20, when a total of 69 delegates will be elected.

The next shot occurs at the conclusion of the state convention June 3 when the State Party Central Committee will select an additional 23 delegates. The committee also will pick 13 additional delegates from a field of interested statewide officials, state legislators, county officials and mayors.

Party leaders and members of Congress account for the remaining 16 delegates heading to Charlotte in early September.

After electing delegates at this Sunday’s caucuses, Democrats can discuss, and submit, resolutions they would like considered for the state party platform.

Nuse said he expects to hear from Democrats of many “colors and flavors” — feminists, peace activists, environmentalists, teachers and more.

“I foresee a lot of people coming out to protect marriage equality,” he added, referring to the state’s gay-marriage law that conservatives are trying to repeal.

If recent experience is an indication, Nuse said, enthusiasm won’t be lacking Sunday.

“We’ve knocked on 7,000 doors to invite neighbors,” Nuse said of the organizing drive in the 34th District. “The reception was surprisingly good. People are fired up.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com