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How we can make Minnesota's caucuses work better

Minneapolis DFL caucus-goers bringing their resolutions forward
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Minneapolis DFL caucus-goers bringing their resolutions to newly-appointed caucus chair MaryAnn Knox during Tuesday night's caucus at the First Universalist Church.

I love our precinct caucuses; they’re democracy in action. I meet new and old neighbors, hear people introduce resolutions on issues that matter the most to them, and see them cast a vote for the person they think should be our next president, or maybe state representative. The tone, at least in my precinct, is civil — and I like that maybe not everyone agrees or sees everything from the same point of view. However, despite the disagreements, there is much common ground around the resolutions.

As much as I love the experience of caucusing, after this past Tuesday I feel we are not doing justice to the democratic process. I heard about people spending the evening trying to get to their sites, long lines, inconvenient parking, cold waits outside, people walking away frustrated, and lost souls wandering halls in search of their precinct.

Like the Olympics, presidential caucuses happen every four years, so we should have enough preparatory time to get it right. For starters, like the Olympics, let’s start planning way ahead of time. We knew that turnout in earlier states were close to that of 2008. Why didn’t the parties plan for such a large turnout? Let’s start planning now for 2020 by learning from our experiences on Tuesday, both what worked and what did not.

Caucuses help build parties

Precinct caucuses are great ways for the political parties to build their organizations: Caucuses can address the cynicism that’s so easy to have these days, and lead people to believe and understand we are the ones we have been waiting for, to borrow from a civil rights song — the words written by June Jordan. 

People who participate in caucuses feel more of an ownership of the political process. We go from being spectators to participants. In 1968, I felt that my canvassing for Gene McCarthy was changing history. We need to make volunteers in campaigns as equally important as people who bundle big money.

Planning for 2020

Jim Scheibel

A few suggestions to start planning for 2020. Let’s move the precinct caucuses back into the precinct. Most precincts have space that could easily be secured in advance — a school, rec center, library, places of worship or a party room in a high-rise. I know it would be more work, but with precinct chairs and other volunteers, they could make it happen. Wouldn’t it be great if most people could walk from their homes to the caucus?

Chairing a meeting of excited caucus-goers is not an easy assignment, but let’s spend more time training and supporting our volunteer chairs. Smooth-running caucuses need good, prepared volunteers. We could train and recruit high school students to be tellers, sign people in, and record resolutions. Attending caucuses should become a way of being civically involved. 

Jim Scheibel, a former mayor of St. Paul, is Professor of Practice in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department, Hamline University. He is a former director of both AmeriCorps VISTA and the Senior Corps. 

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Comments (11)

Caucuses are Different Year to Year

The first thing to remember if you're going to try to "reform" the caucuses is that they are different year to year. There are at least three different kinds of caucuses:

**In presidential years and particularly when there is no incumbent of the party up for re-election

**In non-presidential years when there is a federal senator or state office to be on the ballot

**In totally off years with no president and no federal senator or state offices on the ballot

In each of those three types of caucuses, the amount of people who attend is different and WHO attends is also entirely different as well.

So, if you're going to reform the caucuses, you have to pick which type of caucuses that you're going after. And, if you think that you're going after all three, you're probably wrong about at least two of the different types.

MPR thread

In the MPR thread asking whether caucuses should be replaced with primaries, one commenter suggested a "hybrid" that would allow all-day voting for the office(s) in question (applicable to your first two examples) while still holding evening "caucus" sessions to discuss and decide on other party business.

What would stand in the way of designing a system like that?

lots of things

The hybrid would have to be an actual state-run primary separate from the caucus. Party-run all-day voting would be prohibitively expensive, logistically difficult in getting the sites and volunteers, and rife with the potential for fraud. Completely unworkable.

Unworkable?

Unworkable? Or "unworkable"? I suspect that the larger problem is the resistance to allowing more people to vote. What's the difference between fraud and incompetence? You can prevent fraud. I highly doubt that a party run primary would be any more fraught with questionable votes than the caucus system. In any case, it's not like it can't be done. Many other states use either a primary or a hybrid. It's about willpower, or maybe just power, not cost or feasibility.

Unworkable

The reason that the DFL runs out of ballots and registration forms is that they can't afford the printing cost. Cost alone makes this idea literally impossible, not just unworkable. It has nothing whatsoever to do with willpower.

When I say fraud, I really mean fraud and incompetence. I worked as a teller with a small group that passed out, collected, and counted the votes, all in a two-hour period. Day-long voting means that multiple people will be handling the ballots with lots of downtime. There isn't a balllot counter that locks the ballots away. There is an envelope.

I oppose the caucus system because I want to see higher and more representative turnout. What I want to see is a state-run primary, which is what most primary states have. When the votes actually count, the parties should not be involved.

That's exactly

That's exactly what I proposed at our caucus after the initial circus.

Plus, it's not just that the caucuses are disorganized, they also prevent people who work at the time of the caucus (there's no law that says an employer has to allow you to attend a caucus, paid or unpaid) or are otherwise unable to attend from participating. Simply planning ahead and keeping them in the precinct isn't going to fix that. Plus, in my precinct, there are only single family houses and town homes. There are no gathering places, unless we want to hold the caucus outside on the trail next to the pond, or maybe trespass and hold it in the undeveloped woods.

In addition, it's simply not important to most people whether there's party business to conduct. They're there to have a say in who gets nominated to the party presidential ticket. That's the only thing important to them. And we should accept that--we already allow voting and leaving, so making it more convenient for more people to vote and leave via a primary is a common sense solution.

Democracy in Action

No, voting is one instance of democracy in action. And precinct caucuses erect high barriers to voting, barriers Democrats in particular, find intolerable in any other context, and rightfully so.

I am a political activist of the DFL persuasion, and have been for decades. I have gotten awards for it. I have shaken hands with Mark Dayton. Twice. Yet political hack that I am, even I have some vague understanding that the function of elections isn't to strengthen local party apparatuses or to make for pleasant and civil get togethers with a scattering of neighbors every two years, rather it is to elect people to office, some of whom will make life and death decisions for Americans and for the rest of the world. Quantness and and the providing of an opportunity to engage in Minnesota Nice should have no part in this process.

I believe Donald Trump is a hideous human being. The real possibility that he may become our next president is about as anything I have ever seen in our national politics, and might very well bring on our greatest political since the outbreak of the Civil War. But one thing he has done is strip away the veneer of niceness that has clouded our politics, and reminded of the immense seriousness of this process that too many in our national discourse have sought to conceal.

How about encouraging more folks in leadership?

Does it really make sense for a major Minnesota Political Party to have one person holding the following party leadership positions: Congressional District Chair, County Party Chair, Senate District Chair, and Precinct Chair? Perhaps some reasonable limit of party positions held should be exercised by the parties to assure more people get involved with party leadership.

Volunteers

Good luck with that. There was not a single person in our precinct that was willing to be in any of those positions. No amount of encouragement would have changed that.

Caucus

Steve Cross makes a great point. In fact, you can't even have a meaningful discussion about caucuses without making those distinctions.

The caucus system is at least defensible in non-presidential years. It allows a small, unrepresentative, group of people to select party candidates, but still gives everyone the opportunity to participate in the process by voting in the primary. The DFL was able to break their long streak of losing governor's races when Mark Dayton ingored the caucus and won in the primary. That should have been a lesson to the DFL as to just how out-of-touch with the electorate caucus attendees have been over time.

In presidential years - where the results are binding - the caucus system is unconscionable. It was essentially a primary with multiple (sometimes dozens) of locations consolidated into one, and the voting time cut from a full day to an hour and a half. You don't see that in elections in 3rd world countries.

I heard complaints about having to walk 10 blocks to get to the site, and then having to wait in line for 45 minutes. How many older and disabled voters were unable to do that? At least the sidewalks were not icy, but some years that isn't the case in early March.

And while employers are required to give time off, realistically many evening shift workers can't take off or can't afford to give up a shift's worth of pay to go vote. They are disenfranchised by the caucus system.

For parents with young kids, especially single parents, taking several hours off to vote in the evening is extremely difficult. How many stayed home? I suspect by the looks on their faces that that parents who dragged their young kids along and waited in line may not be back.

Active military personel stationed overseas? Thanks for your service, but sorry, you don't get to vote. That's true for anyone that has to be out-of-town for any reason.

I have been caucusing for years and I understand the reasons people like the caucus. But those reasons don't count for much when you are in line in the hallway while the caucus business is going on. In any event, any benefit from the caucus is outweighed by the fact that the system makes voting difficult and in some cases disenfranchises people outright. It can't be defended and can't be fixed.

I find that all too much of

I find that all too much of this caucus vs. primary discussion confuses voting in a general election and voting (in a primary or in caucuses) to choose a political party's candidate for this or that office. We did not elect anybody on Tuesday in Minnesota; we chose DFL and GOP candidates for the presidential nomination. So we have to consider who gets to decide who represents a particular party: the general population, or party members.

Those party members should be the only ones who can choose. I don't want someone who might vote for Donald Trump distinguishing for the MN DFL between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. We ask in a quick early statement that everybody in a caucus adhere to certain GOP or DFL principles--but we didn't do that on Tuesday. All we did Tuesday was check a name on a little presidential-preference paper and head home again. Ballots were hand-counted, the sloppiest of methods.

That means that we should have a closed primary for selecting a party's presidential (and maybe Senatorial/Congressional) candidates. No Democrats can vote for a Republican slate and possibly skew it to favor somebody in the Democratic slate later, and vice versa. Those of us who remember open primaries in one state or another can tell tales of manipulation by primary voters from another party with a "long view" to the general election where their sneaky crossover votes will have weakened the opposing party's line-up.

So: all-day voting primaries with state-wide proportional allocation of delegates, but only for those voters who declare their party and who then can only vote for their party's nominees. We can hold caucuses on another night, for party building.

There was not party building for most of the Minnesotans who just checked a presidential preference and went home this past Tuesday. There does not remain any reason for caucuses to do only that.