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The 5 things you’ll want to know if you’re thinking about caucusing in Minnesota

Both Republicans and Democrats will use the caucus-night votes to determine which candidates their delegates support at the national conventions.

Voters figuring out their precincts with the help of a caucus worker, right, during the 2012 Minnesota Republican caucuses in Coon Rapids.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Minnesota’s caucus night is coming. But are you ready?

Preference polls taken at caucuses on March 1 will have a direct role in determining how each party allocates state delegates to the national conventions this summer. Minnesota will be part of the Super Tuesday slate of caucuses and primaries in 14 states. 

We likely won’t see as many attendees as the record-breaking 2008 caucus turnout, when the Barack Obama campaign attracted droves of first-timers and led to long lines and full parking lots. But both Republican and Democratic contests have been attracting lots of voters this year. So both parties say they’re planning for big crowds, and some caucus sites have been moved to larger premises.

It’s important to remember that these are party-run caucuses, and not primaries, where you can vote absentee or vote early or show up at your normal polling place, vote and then leave. Caucuses involve a bit more interaction.

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Here’s what you’ll want to know to go caucusing:

1. Is this an all-night thing? 

No. The preference polling starts at 7 p.m., and should be be finished by 8 p.m., and while there’s plenty more politicking to be done after the votes, Republican and DFL officials realize that many will vote and run.

The party brass do hope, though, that  you’ll stick around and get more involved in the party business. Two hours, tops, they say, and you can have some input in how the party of your choice operates in the state, and which policies it will pursue.

2. If I go, will everybody know whom I voted for? 

No. We’re not like Iowa, where those attending caucuses have to publicly show which candidates they support. Votes here will be private.

3. Is there any way I can participate without showing up?

Sorry. As John Reich, a Winthrop & Weinstine lobbyist and former DFL Capitol staffer who has prepared a tip sheet for the caucuses (PDF), says: Caucus attendance is important to the parties, and to individual voters, because “100 percent of votes not cast don’t count.” In other words, if you want to make a difference, you’ve got to go. “This is such an interesting presidential year in that both parties have candidates in a position to jockey for a nomination,” Reich said. “Many didn’t anticipate Bernie on the Democratic side, and on the Republican side it’s been fascinating.”

4. You’ve guilted me into it. Where am I going? 

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Both parties have selected caucus sites around the state, and the Secretary of State’s office has prepared an online “caucus finder” to help voters find the location of their DFL or GOP gathering that night.

The app uses location data from the parties and links your address to the appropriate precinct site.

The finder only incorporates Republican and DFL sites. There also are caucuses for the Independence Party, which lost its major party status when it didn’t garner enough statewide votes in 2014. Those locations are on its website.

5. Hold on, am I even eligible to vote at a caucus? 

You don’t have to prove you’re a Republican or DFLer to participate in the caucuses. The rules only say:

  • You must be eligible to vote in the November general election.
  • You must live in the precinct.
  • You must generally agree with the principles of the political party hosting the caucus.

(State law gives Minnesotans the right to take time off work to attend a precinct caucus or political party convention if you’re a delegate or alternate, but you had to give employers 10 days’ written notice.) 

What you need to know if you’re a Democrat:

Vicki Wright, the DFL’s training and party affairs director, said people should know that there are many differences between caucuses and elections. “The main thing, they’re not at the usual polling places, and there is no absentee or early voting. It’s not really an election, but you’re giving your preference for who we should nominate,” she said.

It’s not winner-take-all, and no one is eliminated. “It’s part of the party nominating process, not like our normal primary elections, where only one candidate comes out of it and moves on to the general election,” she said.

Still, they’re trying to make it easy for those who only want to express a preference for president.

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Doors will open by 6:30 p.m.; you can then register, vote, put the ballot in a box, and go right home.

The results of the vote will be used to determine how some, but not all, of the state’s delegates will vote at the Democratic National Convention.

The 2008 DFL caucus at St. Stephens School in Minneapolis.
The 2008 DFL caucus at Saint Stephen’s School in Minneapolis.

Wright said the state will ultimately send 93 delegates to the national convention, July 25-28 in Philadelphia; 77 of them will be bound on the first ballot by the caucus results.

Another 16 superdelegates, which include elected state officials and party leaders, are not bound by the results and can support any candidate.

Caucus-goers who stick around after voting will help elect delegates to the next level, the Senate District or county conventions around the state. And they’ll learn more about the campaigns, party-building and policy issues, Wright said.

“The whole thing usually takes no more than two hours, though I suppose it could be longer in larger precincts or somewhere that has very active discussion about resolutions,” she said.

“But I hope people consider staying; it’s a unique experience and once you do it, you might get hooked on it.”

What you need to know if you’re a Republican:

For the first time this year, the results from Minnesota Republican caucuses will be binding on delegates to the national convention, July 18-21 in Cleveland.

Katie Boyd, a communications specials for the Minnesota GOP, said doors will open around 6 p.m. After registration, caucus-goers will be directed to the right classroom or area for their particular precinct, and then there will be a Pledge of Allegiance.

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Precinct leaders will be elected and the process explained, followed by the straw ballot. Voting should be finished by 8 p.m.

“After the preference poll, delegates to next level conventions will be elected, there will be volunteer recruitment, votes on resolutions and discussion of the party platform,” Boyd said.

“We encourage people to stay for the entire process, but they are free to go. We’re not going to lock the doors.”

The March 1 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses will be a major indication of how the candidates are holding up in a number of geographic areas, Reich said. So he’s looking for a good turnout in Minnesota, for both parties.

And he, like the party officials, suggests sticking around after the vote.

“Get involved. We always hear people complaining: ‘I’m tired of party politics, they don’t represent my views.’ So why not get involved; show up and work to get your views into the platforms?” he said.

Caucusing tutorial by video

To that point, two University of Minnesota students — David Watts and Nathan Otterson — made a video encouraging participation at the caucuses among their peers. It’s useful for the broader population as well: 

What is a caucus? video by David Watts and Nathan Otterson