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Minnesota’s raucus caucus system has run its course

Deborah Morse-Kahn
  Deborah Morse-Kahn

No one can accuse me of not caring. A diehard Democrat, I stayed up Super Tuesday until the Missouri primary returns came in at 12:30 in the morning, snapped off the living-room lights, announced to the dark, “Let’s go to bed!” and collapsed into sleep. The Minneapolis Elections Judge reminder card had arrived in the day’s mail: I need to update my file and once again request a split-shift assignment to my home precinct.

But I never went to my precinct caucus. Truth to tell, I have not attended a caucus since the years of the Vietnam War. Managing to find the one shyness gene in the collective family DNA, I am psychologically crushed by vast groups of aggressive folks packed into small spaces where folks are shouting at each other and the entire circus is being managed by those who have aced the system.
Still undecided on Super Tuesday
Right up to Tuesday morning, I couldn’t have told you what name I might have at least put on the straw ballot…and run like a hare back to the comfort of my own home. Obama? Clinton? Oblinton? Which??? Which??? I wanted to make that decision in the quiet privacy of a voting booth, free to chew the end of my felt-tip pen and, finally, make my mark.

By Tuesday morning, the first eepings of a possible winter cold were making themselves felt. If I could have dressed, grabbed my coffee mug and voted at 8 in the morning on the way to work, my vote would have been cast, the deed done, and the rest of the day left to play out as best as possible, depending on work flow and body health.

But by 4 p.m., I knew I was exhausted, my eyes hurt, and I just wanted to go home. A raucus caucus, that circus wrangled by the few for the many, was the antithesis of my needs, and by the time I lay down “just for a little while” before going out again to cast my straw ballot … I knew I wasn’t leaving that couch. So the remote control let me toggle between CNN and MSNBC for the night’s returns.

It was my Super Bowl, nursed with mint tea instead of beer and chips. Democrats or Republicans, the whole thing was incredibly exciting, an election before THE election.
Caucuses’ narrow time frame disenfranchises many
But I wasn’t at my caucus. And there were many others for whom a sliver of time on a weekday — 90 precious minutes — simply wasn’t manageable. First-responders (fire, police, emergency personnel), anyone working the 11-7 second shift (caucuses began at 6:30) or a second job (numbering in the untold thousands), the elderly and/or disabled for whom mobility is already a daunting issue in deep winter and for whom Metro Mobility services — which is first come, first served and therefore not easily locked into a time frame — can only bring riders to the curb … but not to the door. Did I mention you cannot vote by absentee ballot in a Minnesota DFL caucus? No preplanning possible.

I heard some wild stories from folks who’d had some very interesting experiences Tuesday night. No one asked one gal at her DFL caucus for any kind of I.D. at all, just passed her through into an overheated, heavily packed room where she could stand for an hour-and-a-half if she was able for the duration. She didn’t. She went out the door, found the Republican caucus and got grilled for every bit of I.D. she had on her. She didn’t cast her ballot there, either, but went home in disgust.

Another friend found that the overflow — what, they were surprised at the large turnout? In Minnesota? — moved the whole show to another, larger venue in the building. The hand-drawn signage was poor, and she was among several wandering ghosts, wrapped in parkas and scarves, in the hallways of an alien school building trying to find her caucus in time for any kind of meaningful participation. She arrived hot, sweaty, very cross and very late.

Folks waited in line for hours to cast straw ballots, if they were actually able to get into the building. Traffic was backed up in every direction at many caucus sites, and some folks never got out of their cars.

The caucus is a leftover from the days when all of rural America ran town-hall meetings. It’s had its day. Give me the primary election — voting sheets, marking pens, blue plastic booths, tally machines and I VOTED stickers, and let me get there when I can over a long day of opportunity.

The caucus belongs to the past, and we should jettison it, leave behind this fascinating but vastly inefficient form of participatory democracy and join the all-inclusive world of state primaries.

Deborah Morse-Kahn is director of Regional Research Associates, Minneapolis. She can be reached at

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Iric Nathanson on 02/08/2008 - 11:57 am.

    Yes. The DFL caucuses were chaotic and poorly organized. Yes. the lines were too long, the parking inadequate, and the balloting haphazard. But YES the caucuses were spontaneous, inspiring and filled with energy. In this era when so much of our politics is mananged and manipulated, we had a genuine episode of participatory democracy on February 5. Let’s overlook the inconveniences and start celebrating!

  2. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 02/08/2008 - 01:48 pm.

    Hi dear Iric, I loved your enthusiasm but it still doesn’t provide the considerable numbers of the disenfranchised: in addition to my list of first responders, second shift works, two-job households, and the elderly and/or disabled, comments coming in to me remind me that folks with young children (under ten) are in tough straights as well. Do they bring them along for what must surely be a grueling and utterly uninvolving experience where all they see are people’s kneecaps? Does one parent need to stay home, as one writer told me, because no sitter can be found for that precious slice of time? Blessings on your enthusiasm! Now tell it to that list above, and tell me again why we should stay with an outdated system. – Deborah

  3. Submitted by Linda Anderson on 02/08/2008 - 02:26 pm.

    I was registering people at our caucus at which 122 ballots were cast and about 40 people stayed to caucus – I’d say 90% brand new to the whole idea of caucusing. Was it hectic and frazzled? yes. Were tempers frayed? yes. But at one point in the evening, a woman (from her accent not Minnesota born) asked me after putting her ballot into the box “Is this what is called a civic duty?” and I could assure her that yes, this was a civic duty in which she had just taken part. And as the evening wore on, I stayed at the table registering but watched the caucus of black, white and Asian Minnesotans civilly and often with laughter talk and negotiate with one another. And shake hands as they left for the evening. Primaries are efficient & clean – primaries messy and trying of one’s patience – but never have I left a primary of any kind with the same bounce in my step as I did Tuesday night.

  4. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 02/08/2008 - 05:19 pm.

    Linda Sue, as I said to Iric, I applaud everyone’s enthusiasm for participatory democracy. My issue, aside from sheer logisitics, is the disenfranchisement of far too many eligible Minnesota voters.

    Let’s make this easy: I divide the entire population of Minnesota’s eligible voters into one-third and two-thirds. I say to the two-thirds group, “Okay, you two-thirds, you can vote in this caucus but only with the understanding that one-third of all state registered voters will be unable to vote. Are you willing?”

    Ask yourself that question. If your answer is “Yes” than you have not truly grasped the concept of PARTICIPATORY democracy. We think of voter registration issues has having to do with minorities and new citizens. Who knew it would encompass those who could not make 90 minutes in their day available for a once-every-four-years chance to cast their ballots?

  5. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 02/08/2008 - 07:54 pm.

    I think that one of the things that you are missing here is that the caucuses are not voting. We have an actual primary in September every year, and that is an official ballot that is binding. All that is done on caucus night is a straw poll. It is informal and offered by the parties to help determine delegate selection to the national convention.

    Caucuses are a party function not a state function and so nobody is “disenfranchised.”

    The DFL, at least, (I can’t speak to the other parties) offers a proxy letter so that a person will be able to be a delegate or an alternate to the senate district or county unit party convention, if there are any remaining positions. Those conventions are generally held on Saturdays which would be more convenient.

    Caucus states have a huge advantage over primary states because it is at that level that party-building begins. In primary states the candidates and their fundraisers control the local party apparatus. In caucus states the candidates realize that they are more subject to the will of the grassroots participants.

    You haven’t been to a caucus for forty years, and yet you feel like you have enough knowledge about it to criticize it, yet you sound foolish here. All it takes is a little bit of research to understand how it works. I would expect more from a research associates director, but apparently it is more important to complain than to understand.

  6. Submitted by Deborah Morse-Kahn on 02/09/2008 - 08:57 am.

    Mr. Haubrich writes: “You haven’t been to a caucus for forty years, and yet you feel like you have enough knowledge about it to criticize it, yet you sound foolish here. All it takes is a little bit of research to understand how it works. I would expect more from a research associates director, but apparently it is more important to complain than to understand.”

    Mr Haubrich: On the contrary, I understand all too well how it works. No need for “a little bit of research” as my father was among the community of men and women who gathered around Hubert Humphrey to bring the Democratic Party (largely higher incomes and education) and the Farmer-Labor Party (largely lower incomes and unions) together to form what we now familiarly call the DFL. Our family name is on the honor wall at the DFL headquarters. Members of our family have served in a great variety of positions on campaigns, commissions and committees since 1948.

    A little anger is a good human emotion. Do not confuse it with whining or complaining. The latter serves no purpose as it generally comes with no accompanying action. Anger, however, can generate public statements such as my own, which are then forwarded to concerned elected officials, party chairs, and the many others whom the StarTribune and Pioneer Press made note of in their post-caucus coverage as feeling great dismay in the midst of their pride over turnout. Please also see my answers above speaking to voter disenfranchisement. In this country, all must be able to vote, or none. There it is.

    The “actual primary” you speak of is non-existent. Who here has not done his due research? See:
    to understand that February 5th WAS our primary. Only we call it a caucus, and many registered voters could not attend.

    Delegates choose the candidate, Mr. Haubrich, and delegates are chosen at the caucus. I would not attend, knowing I was yet unsure of my candidate choice and eschewing the process altogether. But multiple thousands could NOT attend, Mr. Haubrich, and you may defend that any way you wish but it still amounts to the same thing: voter disenfranchisement.

  7. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 02/09/2008 - 11:50 am.

    It is becoming more and more obvious that I need to submit my own article for community voices.

    You still aren’t getting it, and neither does Doug Grow.

    You can be a delegate by proxy if you can’t attend the caucuses and you don’t have to choose until June who you support if you make it to the convention as an uncommitted delegate.

    The caucuses are about party-building. The Straw Poll is only one aspect.The State is not an organizer, the parties are the organizers. Parties can even choose to have their primaries on a different day if their members agree.

    The primary, which is in September is run by the state and yes it runs all day as does the general election. Local elections depend on on the primaries because it winnows out the candidates who haven’t done a very good job of getting support. We don’t want to move those to February and I don’t think it is feasible to have two separate primaries.

    Articles like the one you wrote here serve to discourage party participation. Caucuses are still the best way to organize at the grass roots level. Yes, they need to publicize the proxy method so that more people have a chance to participate. If you want to make a change, get involved in the party so you can lobby the central committee to move the caucuses to Saturday.

    We will caucus again in two years. If you can’t make it on that day, do a proxy and send a resolution to move the caucuses. Gather support in other senate districts so it becomes an actionable item at a central committee meeting.

    Don’t grouse about disenfranchisement if you are not willing to participate in making a change.

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