A relatively simple way to improve Minnesota’s caucus system

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Voters attending the 2012 Minnesota Republican caucus at Coon Rapids Middle School.

On the day of the New Hampshire primary, it’s time to consider the many problems of a caucus system, like the one Iowa — and Minnesota — employs. Compared to a primary, a caucus is time-consuming, hard to understand, and inconvenient.  

There’s also another problem, which was demonstrated last week in Iowa.  A few hundred people closed up in a middle school gym is a Petrie dish for rumors that could, in fact, affect results.  

To recap: Amid the caucuses, some supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz started circulating the rumor that Ben Carson was going to drop out of the race. The rumor started when an overeager supporter misinterpreted Twitter messages that Carson was not immediately going on to campaign in New Hampshire. 

Carson did not drop out. He is campaigning in New Hampshire. And he told CBS News he believes the rumors affected the results in Iowa, where he had a fourth place showing behind Cruz, Donald Trump, and Sen. Marco Rubio.   

“It’s a very contained environment where it’s easy to throw things around,” said former Minnesota House minority leader Marty Seifert, a Rubio supporter and veteran of dozens of caucuses. “If there are things that go out in the mail a week or two in advance, there’s time for people to refute. At conventions, there’s no time to respond, or maybe you don’t even hear it.” 

Both Democrats and Republicans have tried to change Minnesota law to move the state to the primary system. But party activists, who see caucuses as the only true test of grass roots support, have blocked those efforts.

One of those activists has come up with an idea that could split the difference, however. Luke Hellier is a public relations executive, former staffer for Congressman Erik Paulsen, and a Rubio supporter. He suggests that Minnesota should allow absentee ballots to be cast for the presidential preference ballot that is taken at caucuses every four years.  

Hellier makes the argument that requiring attendance at a caucus in effect disenfranchises too many people — everyone from parents with child care needs to those in the military. An absentee ballot would allow wider participation while keeping the caucus system intact.

Until then, the only way to vote for a presidential candidate and, in turn, the Minnesota delegates who will help choose the Democrat and Republican party nominees, is to go to a precinct caucus on March 1 — where, if nothing else, caucus-goers would be wise to be suspicious of whispering campaigns about any candidates. 

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/09/2016 - 06:44 pm.

    A caucus

    …is hardly “grass-roots.” At least the ones I attended were not. Caucuses are places where enthusiasts for a particular candidate or issue – some might call them “zealots” – go to vote for their favorite candidate or issue. They’re typically attended by a tiny portion of the electorate, even in that particular caucus district, and as a consequence, the results of caucus votes often bear little relation to the views of the general electorate. See: Bachmann, Michele…

    Colorado’s primary system required me to register as either a Democrat or a Republican, or a voter from the Green Party or some other organized party – the only time in my voting life I was ever registered as a member of a political party – but Missouri’s primary system requires only that you be a registered voter. You can vote in the primary for any candidate, of any party. Given those two choices, I like Missouri’s way better.

  2. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 02/10/2016 - 08:45 pm.


    Full disclosure–I have been a GOP County Chair.


    1) You just gave the DEFINITION of ‘grass roots’–motivated individuals who carry the water at the local level–whether you like Michele Bachmann or not.

    2) You might THINK you like an open primary, but they also afford the potential for a great deal of mischief. Example…DFL has the incumbent. So all of us DFL’ers go vote for the WEAKEST GOP challenger in the primary. (You SEE the problem, right??)

    That said, I would like to see an early MN primary; but I would also much rather have party-declaration vote registration. You don’t care enough to register for a party? Then I don’t think you care enough about my party to have a say. Just sayin’.

  3. Submitted by George Carlson on 02/11/2016 - 10:06 am.

    Caucus participants

    There are at least three categories of caucus participant. First there is the enthusiast for a particular candidate or issue. He or she will attend the caucus and all the conventions that follow, so long as he is elected to continue and as long as his candidate in still in contention.

    Second, there is the person who would like to vote for a particular candidate or issue but is not motivated enough to continue with the process beyond the caucus.

    Third is the hobbyist. His or her hobby is politicking; attending caucuses, conventions, etc, and not particularly out of enthusiasm for a particular cause or candidate. Rather for the enjoyment of the process.

    This year, with its strong anti-establishment bent, there will be a strong showing by the enthusiasts. In a more sedate year, such as 2012 with Obama up for re-election and not much excitement in the Republican race, the hobbyists will dominate. In either case, the voter who just wants her or his preference counted faces obstacles. She has to be available to attend the caucus. She has to endure the caucus. Furthermore, she might have to attend the conventions that follow to insure representation for her position.

    For most after a long Minnesota winter, spending spring and early summer weekends indoors politicking is not their choice. The enthusiasts and the hobbyists prevail. The voter is shut out.

    Minnesota needs a binding primary vote for its citizens to be heard.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2016 - 04:55 pm.

      Yet Another Category

      There are a fair number of caucus attendees who are genuinely interested in the process, and in participating in it. While they certainly have an enthusiasm for specific candidates/issues, they will keep on participating even after their candidate is out, or their issue no longer discussed.

      They may also enjoy the process, but they aren’t merely hobbyists.

  4. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 02/11/2016 - 10:36 am.

    The caucus system

    Is an outdated joke in today’s world. People no longer have time to waste fighting zealots of a particular candidate or particular CAUSE.

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