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How we can make Minnesota’s caucuses work better

Like the Olympics, presidential caucuses happen every four years, so we should have enough preparatory time to get it right.

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

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.

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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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