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Tread carefully before switching to presidential primaries

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Democratic caucus-goers either registering to vote or checking off their names to get ballots at a Dupont Ave. caucus site in Minneapolis last month.

As this is being written, the governor, elected officials from across the political spectrum, and various media outlets are citing the logistical troubles highlighted by the abnormally large turnout for Minnesota’s March 1 presidential caucuses as justification for quickly pushing through a switch to a primary system. A bill was already introduced on the first day of the new legislative session that would create presidential primaries to replace using party caucuses as the method of determining delegate allocation for the major party’s presidential candidates.

These primaries would be run much the same way that Minnesota’s other state-sponsored “party primaries” are run, with absentee ballots available six weeks before the election, and anyone able to vote without recording party affiliation. However, since the next presidential nomination contests will not be decided for another four years, it’s possible to benefit from a more thorough examination of the nomination system before deciding on specific changes.

Until recently, Minnesota has not been much of a factor in moves to change the presidential nomination system. The ability of Ron Paul supporters in 2012 to gain the vast majority of Minnesota’s national Republican delegates despite not winning the vote at precinct caucus time was a factor in new rules adopted by the national party to more closely bind delegate support to caucus and primary election results. The new importance of the caucus results to determining the nomination, along with this season’s campaigns featuring more a more fractured base and more distinct factions, raised the interest of those who normally haven’t shown up at precinct caucuses to do so this year for each of the two major parties.

Three reasons offered for a switch

Three main reasons are being offered for switching to presidential primaries for nomination: 1) The caucus system is not democratic enough; 2) It is not professional enough to ensure smoothly-run elections when there is high turnout; and 3) It imposes unnecessary hardship on people not physically able to get to the locations at 7 p.m. on caucus night. Before ramming through a conversion to a specific primary system at the peak of popular dissatisfaction with the caucus structure, it would be instructive to look at the legitimacy of the objections to the caucus system, and what options make sense for addressing any problems.

It is not contradictory to acknowledge there are now problems with using caucuses for presidential nomination while still realizing they have performed that function well in prior years. In many cases this year, the volunteers and facilities were insufficient for the higher turnout. Some people left who weren’t willing to tolerate the waiting lines, and in some locations people who arrived before 8 p.m. were turned away without being able to vote. These problems negatively impact the grassroots participation caucuses are supposed to encourage. Democrats in various states, including Iowa and Nevada, are taking the lead in setting up alternative caucuses for military members stationed elsewhere, for second-shift casino workers, and for residents of assisted-living group homes. This is happening even though the Democrats, who generally accept more government and participate more often in political meetings, typically have a larger turnout at presidential caucuses.

As for not all potential voters being able to get to the locations at 7 p.m. or claims that the system is not democratic enough — earlier generations of American citizens and political leaders would not have demanded as much from the nomination process for president, but the ascending generations are demanding it. They expect instant information, instant service, and instant results while having to exert less individual effort in the process. It’s clear that earlier generations did not share these expectations when it came to government processes. Note that there was no widespread rebellion in states where the people had no direct say in electing our first generation of American presidents, allowing state legislators to appoint electors for the electoral college.

Some strong arguments are weakening

It’s also important to note that some of the strongest arguments for having presidential caucuses are weakening. For many of the new people coming to caucuses, the caucuses are nothing more than a location for recording their preferences for candidates running for office. As parties struggling under contribution limits rely more on convention fees to offset operational costs, fewer people are willing to attend conventions, even if more show up at the precinct caucuses. There are also fewer willing to sit through discussion of proposed resolutions, because they don’t think they can learn more about politics from a small gathering of neighbors than they can from the Internet or other forms of media.

John P. Augustine
John P. Augustine

This year, I attended a caucus in a location that ran out of parking, and had to set up chairs in half of a gymnasium instead of the usual classroom just to conduct the precinct business. Despite higher turnout, there were fewer people than ever before who stayed for the business of considering resolutions and electing delegates. No one in attendance publicly shared their views on issues or candidates prior to voting, and no one said they were leaning or undecided but seeking more information. Anyone who showed interest in being a delegate to the next level of convention became one by default, since there was not enough interest to fill the delegate slots. The group did not vet anyone by listening to them or asking any questions. It’s hard to maintain faith in the judgment of grassroots delegates to nominate candidates or debate party platform language under those circumstances. For all I know, we could have chosen delegates who believe 9/11 was an “inside job” or who believe that the biggest threats to us are Zionists or magnetic pulses.

Minnesota’s precinct caucuses never had as much value as caucuses in some other states for other reasons. Minnesota requires no photo ID for voter registration, and party affiliation of voters is not part of any public record, as it is in many states. This year, if the precinct caucuses were held in close proximity, there is nothing other than time constraints that would have prevented someone from voting for presidential candidates in the caucuses of the two major parties, and then also participating in a caucus meeting or online caucus held by a minor political party at another time. If the presidential nomination for one major party had been uncontested, it would have been very tempting for a member of one party to go to the other party’s caucus and vote for the least electable opposition, since for most people caucuses are rapidly devolving into the equivalent of primaries. Freedom of association does not give someone a right to associate with a group that is unwilling to associate with that person; it simply means that free people are able to peaceably form or withdraw from associations without interference from government or forced infiltration from those hostile to the association.

Considering options

Political parties, properly understood, are voluntary associations. How should that understanding shape discussion around alternatives to the current presidential nominating system? The least radical change one could propose would be to simply have more caucus locations to avert the overcrowding, but the party officials are unlikely to pursue that course of action. For one thing, the crowd size is too unpredictable to ensure the optimal number of facilities. Also, the parties already have trouble finding enough experienced or willing conveners to lead the caucuses. Finally, the local legislative candidates (most caucus locations were grouped by legislative districts) would chafe at the demands to travel to additional caucus sites.

The next least radical change would be to continue precinct caucuses, which in presidential election years would follow shortly after the major political parties in Minnesota have held presidential primaries. This is apparently what the political party leaders are willing to do. Current state law allows people to get time off from work to attend precinct caucuses; would that be continued if there were also presidential primaries? The time off is more important to caucuses that are convened at a specific time and often adjourned a short time later, in contrast to a primary election that is open for at least 12 hours along with a window for voting absentee.

Let’s say that there is broad agreement to add presidential primary elections while retaining the caucus system for other party functions. The term “stakeholders” is misused far too often by the political class. Any change in enforced law expends public resources, which impact all citizens and frequently rely on revenues collected from citizens to implement the law. Having said that, for some groups, much is at stake.

The details will matter. Will advance registration be required, or will photo ID at least be required for same-day registrants? Will they be “closed primaries,” only allowing voters to vote in the primary of the party if they indicate a party affiliation (which could switch before the next primary election)? Will they be “open” primaries where voters could participate in party candidate selection without any recorded affiliation to that party (which is how all primaries are currently done in this state, despite offending the principle of freedom of association)? Will there be “mixed” primaries? For example, some states confine eligible voters in Republican presidential primaries to registered Republicans plus registered independents, the theory being that independents can’t win the Presidency and therefore independents ought to be able to register a preference during a party’s presidential nomination process. This theory compromises freedom of association and amounts to a mushy “fairness” argument, but it has appeal both to independents who feel entitled to shape presidential nominations and to candidates seeking a boost for their prospects from independent voters.

Keep absentee voting time short

If there is a switch to presidential primaries, one must guard against a long window for absentee voting, because the results could be tainted by votes for presidential candidates who drop out just before the date of the scheduled primary. Minnesota Republican caucus results would have been less meaningful this year if all the names that appeared on the Iowa caucus ballot this year were still on the March 1 Minnesota caucus ballot; the party wisely waited until a week before the election to finalize the sample ballots. If the absentee-voting period is set at six weeks as it is for other elections, the chances that voters will be voting for meaningful candidates will decrease, especially for those voting absentee. Since a presidential primary doesn’t directly elect a candidate, there could be an “uncommitted” option on the ballot for party voters who want to send delegates that would be uncommitted to a particular candidate. There has to be some thought into how presidential primaries would impact minor parties, as well. They usually have to amass petition signatures to get any of their candidates on a ballot; doing that for a primary in early March would make that substantial hurdle even more difficult.

Finally, a bill to authorize presidential primaries in Minnesota must not be tainted by deal-making that tacks on other election issues that should be decided separately. There are a number of elected officials who would like to advance a national-popular-vote compact, early voting, online voting, and voting by mail. There are also officials who have been pushing for a much earlier primary election date for other contests; the temptation will be there to consolidate all primary elections into one date for the sake of “efficiency.”

No compelling public interest is served by forcing challengers for other elected offices to submit to an earlier filing deadline (even before the outcomes of legislative sessions are decided) or to a longer campaign/election cycle. Each political party should have access to the list of people who tried to impact their own party’s nomination by voting in their party primary. Any change in the process should have a neutral impact on political parties while maximizing their autonomy as voluntary associations. Electoral competition and participation in the process by engaged citizens are compelling interests that could be encouraged.

John P. Augustine is the chairman and president of the Legislative Evaluation Assembly of Minnesota. The views in this commentary are his are not specifically endorsed by the LEA.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/14/2016 - 09:09 am.

    aahhhh…

    Thank you for thoughtful rational writing here. Excellent piece. Thank you.

  2. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 03/14/2016 - 12:59 pm.

    a no to presidential primaries–keep the caucus

    We need to recall we once had a presidential primary in MN. It didn’t work so the next legislative session abolished it. Mr. Augustine didn’t do his historical research. And why does he think we need photo IDs for caucuses.

    The problem these days is that we seem to have forgotten with rights go responsibilities. The caucus system, with essentially a presidential primary attached, is not a true caucus system in which people wanting to be delegates are vetted, asked who and what they support, and the attendees take it as their responsibility to consider who, as delegate, would best serve the principles and interests of the party. What organization worth supporting doesn’t have a nominating committee? Caucuses are essentially nominating committees; presidential primaries have become popularity contests and easy ways for small groups with dedicated agendas to take over parties.

    How do you think the T Party and Trump got so far? Primaries.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/14/2016 - 02:18 pm.

      Actually Caucuses Aren’t Immune to Small Group Takeover

      That’s how the “evangelicals” took over the Republican Party in Minnesota,…

      by overwhelming what had been quite poorly attended precinct caucuses,…

      often at the encouragement of their pastors,…

      casting aside the older, more moderate leaders of those caucuses,…

      electing new leadership and delegates,…

      and, thereby, ensuring that all the moderates were thrown out of the party.

      Those “evangelicals” aren’t actually anywhere near the majority of Republicans in Minnesota,…

      but they’re determined to maintain control,…

      often are NOT anything like “Minnesota nice” when others express disagreement with them,…

      and thus have been allowed to make sure there are ZERO moderate candidates from the Republican side in any election.

      It’s amazing what a loud and determined minority can accomplish,…

      when everyone else backs away, stops coming, and lets them get away with it.

      In the end, Caucuses are not immune to problems,…

      but if you’re interested in shaping the political party of your choice from the ground up,…

      your local Precinct Caucus is the only place you can do that.

      Shifting to primaries will only mean that BOTH parties are more easily run by the most interested “insiders,”…

      and far more insulated from new ideas and new possibilities (for good or ill),…

      because without the presidential poll, only the “insiders” will remain involved.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/14/2016 - 03:41 pm.

      Small groups?

      The number of people who participate in the caucus is a small fraction of the number who participate in a primary. The idea that you avoid a takeover by small groups by having fewer and less representative voters is absurd.

      Elections are popularity contests. I would think that a popularity contest (Dayton) is a better way to choose someone for another popularity contest than a nominating committee (Kelliher Anderson, Hatch, Moe).

      Trust the voters. Don’t disenfranchise them.

    • Submitted by John Augustine on 03/14/2016 - 03:46 pm.

      RE: research

      I was not able to include all of MN’s presidential nomination history in the article, but I am aware that MN has adopted a presidential primary on three separate occasions–most recently for the 1992 presidential contests. Those results had little value because the parties would not actually use them for apportioning delegates, and the parties were not willing to use them because there was no attempt to confine the voting pool in each state-run “party primary” to members of that party. Currently, the major parties are required to get the balloting for president done in each caucus by a specified time. When a caucus is struggling under time constraints to record the names of people there who only want to cast a presidential ballot, many caucuses are not willing to annoy the crowd and do the vetting that caucuses have traditionally done.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/14/2016 - 04:00 pm.

      Details?

      “We need to recall we once had a presidential primary in MN. It didn’t work so the next legislative session abolished it.”

      Can you provide some details as to how and why “It didn’t work”?

  3. Submitted by Justin Adams on 03/14/2016 - 03:54 pm.

    Errors, misrepresentations, and hypocracies

    The opinions expressed here are my own.

    I agree with the author’s thesis, that taking a little time to consider how best to organize the presidential nomination contest would be wise. That said, MinnPost readers deserve to be aware of the errors, misrepresentations, and hypocracies in the article.

    The author dismisses claims that a caucus system is not democratic enough by arguing that today’s voters have unrealistic expectations that information, service, and results should be provided in a timely and convenient manner. None of these points speak to the main thrust of proponents’ view that a state-run presidential primary would provide more voters with an opportunity to have their voices heard in the selection of presidential candidates than the current caucus system does.

    The author claims that Minnesota’s precinct caucuses have “less value” than other state’s caucuses. Judging by the rate at which Minnesotans participate in caucuses relative to voters in other states, our voters believe that caucuses are very valuable indeed.

    He backs up his bizarre claim with several “facts” that range from misleading to just plain false.

    False claim #1: “No ID is required to register to vote.”

    Minnesota Election Law DOES require proof of identity and proof of residency in order for a voter to register on Election Day. A current Minnesota ID or DL showing a current address satisfies both requirements. For voters who register at least 20 days before an election, no ID is required as long as the information submitted by the registrant can be verified in a two-part process. First, the identification number provided on the application (MN DL/ID or SSN) is verified as being associated with that voter’s name and DOB by the DMV or SSA. This verifies the voter’s identity. Then the county sends a post card to the voter at the residential address listed on the registration application to verify the voter’s residency. If the voter’s ID number doesn’t match or if the post card is returned, the voter will be asked to present identification before they can be provided with a ballot.

    False Claim #2: “Nothing other than a time constraint that would stop voters from participating in both parties’ caucuses”

    Minnesota Statutes Chapter 202A.16 Subdivision 4 requires that “No person may vote or participate at more than one party’s caucuses in any one year.” A violation of this provision, like most provisions of Minnesota’s election law, is a misdemeanor. Any voter willing to face a criminal citation to participate in a caucus must value that participation very highly indeed.

    Misleading Claim #1: “Current law allows voters to take time off of work to attend precinct caucuses.”

    While it is technically true that M.S. 202A.19, Subd. 2 requires an employer allow an employee to miss work to attend a caucus, but this section of MN election law allows the employer to reduce that employees salary or wages for the time of absence. This imposes an economic cost on certain voters, basically a poll tax. Most Minnesota voters are far more familiar with the law governing time off to vote in an election (M.S. 204C.04, Subd.1) which requires that an employee be permitted to be absent WITHOUT penalty or deduction from salary or wages.

    Misleading Claim #2: “A public record of a voter’s party affiliation would add value to the state’s presidential candidate selection process”

    Partisan primaries in Minnesota strike a careful balance between a voter’s rights to privacy and to cast a secret ballot and the party’s interest that only individuals who will support that party’s platform and candidates be allowed to participate in the party candidate selection process. In order to accomplish this, the partisan primary ballot is divided into columns, one column for each major party. A voter indicates their party preference by selecting which column to vote. Any partisan primary ballot where a voter has “crossed over” and voted for candidates of more than one party is invalid and none of the votes on the partisan primary ballot are counted. Minnesota statutes 204C.17 makes it very clear that the legislature highly values privacy and a secret ballot – the penalty for displaying your marked ballot to another person in a polling place is that the ballot will not be counted, and if election judges believe that you intentionally displayed your ballot, they are prohibited from issuing you a new one. You lose your vote.

    Misleading Claim #3: “Absentee voting in primaries will taint the results because voters may cast their ballots for candidates who have withdrawn from the election”

    The author is concerned that having 46 days for absentee voting, as is provided for other elections, would negatively impact the value of many votes, as candidates will have withdrawn between when the ballots are cast and when they are counted. There is an elegant solution for this problem: ranked choice voting. By conducting the presidential primary with a ranked choice ballot, votes for candidates who have dropped out of the race can be transferred to those voter’s second and third choices.

    Hypocrisy #1: Legislative bundling

    The author expresses a concern that the legislature might try to bundle a variety of electoral reforms into the presidential primary bill. Specifically mentioned are the national popular vote compact, early voting, online voting, and vote by mail. The effects of each of these proposals would be to increase participation in the democratic processes underlying our republic.

    It is telling that the author expresses no such concern about adopting a closed primary system, party pre-registration requirements, voter ID, or even excluding eligible voters from presidential candidate selection process if a party organization doesn’t want to associate with that voter. All these ideas would erect higher barriers to participation in this important democratic process.

    All told, not a great article.

  4. Submitted by John Augustine on 03/14/2016 - 03:56 pm.

    Only insiders are remaining involved

    “without the presidential poll, only the “insiders” will remain involved.”–WITH the presidential poll, only insiders are remaining involved–in most caucuses, there is a mass exodus as soon as the balloting for president is done, and the vetting of delegates is minimal. Hostile takeover of parties is most easily accomplished in “open” primaries, with winner-take-all delegate allocation, even if the winner can’t achieve more than 35% support. The structural details of primaries matter.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/15/2016 - 09:21 am.

      So What?

      “Hostile takeover of parties is most easily accomplished in “open” primaries, with winner-take-all delegate allocation, even if the winner can’t achieve more than 35% support.” Why is the continuity or ideological integrity of a political party a matter of concern for the state? Political parties are private organizations. If a party is taken over by fringe elements, that is the party’s problem, not the state’s. Let the parties find a way to vet their delegates.

      “The structural details of primaries matter.” Up to a point; however, it is easy to lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees.

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