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Why everyone is talking about the DFL precinct caucuses this year

Even though the political action is on the GOP side as the party takes the first steps to select its endorsed candidate for governor, a decision by the state DFL to allow some non-citizens and felons who have completed their sentences to participate has attracted criticism.

state DFL chair Ken Martin and state Republican vice chair Donna Bergstrom
During a joint press conference Monday, state DFL chair Ken Martin and state Republican vice chair Donna Bergstrom encouraged participation in each party’s 4,000 precinct caucuses.

Minnesota state Republicans have all the action with 2022 precinct caucuses that convene Tuesday evening and Minnesota state DFLers have all of the controversy.

With Gov. Tim Walz facing no organized opposition for renomination, the crowded and getting-more-crowded contest on the GOP side will be the focus of political attention. Some 4,000 GOP caucuses — all in person — will conduct straw polls to measure support for the party’s contestants for governor. (Though there are no contested statewide offices on the DFL side, there are legislative races and local offices such as Hennepin County Attorney that will have contested endorsements.)

Get involved

People can find the location of their caucus here.

Information about the DFL caucuses can be found on the party’s website. Information about the GOP caucuses, which convene at 7 p.m., can be found on its website.

The results of the GOP straw poll are expected to be available Tuesday evening on the Secretary of State’s website.

But last week’s announcement by the state DFL that it would allow non-voters — both non-citizens and released felons still on probation — to take part in their mostly virtual caucuses has attracted attention to otherwise routine, even boring, caucus gatherings.

While state law says that only eligible voters can take part in party caucuses, the state DFL sued Secretary of State Steve Simon to block enforcement. A state Court of Appeals ruling in January, while legally a win for Simon’s office, is being relied on the DFL to allow non-citizens — especially undocumented “Dreamers” who were given conditional residency if they were brought into the country as minors — and released felons still on probation to take part in the caucuses and subsequent party processes.

The court did not rule on the DFL assertion that the 45-year-old law violates the party’s First Amendment freedom of association rights. In fact it agreed with the District Court that dismissed the DFL lawsuit. It did state, however, that the illegal voting penalties in the law do not apply to caucuses, only elections. Therefore, the court ruled, there is no credible threat of enforcement for violations of the law.

The decision by the party has reinvigorated GOP assertions that the 2020 election was flawed, that votes were cast illegally. While there has been no evidence of fraud, despite numerous state and federal investigations, it has become a centerpiece of many Republican campaigns.

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Participation controversy

During a joint press conference Monday, state DFL chair Ken Martin and state Republican vice chair Donna Bergstrom encouraged participation in each party’s 4,000 precinct caucuses. It is at this level that delegates to subsequent conventions are elected.

And when party endorsements are at stake, delegate strength at this level can lead to the endorsement.

Both were asked about the DFL decision to expand who is eligible to take part.

“It’s really important to distinguish between voting and the caucuses,” Martin said. “And as much as Republicans and others are trying to conflate the two, there is no one in DFL talking about changing voting laws or voting eligibility.” (New York has allowed some non-citizens to vote in city elections and a Minneapolis council member is preparing an ordinance to do the same there.

Martin said the state DFL and Democrats nationally do support pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and that the party does support restoration of voting rights to felons who have been released from prison but are still on probation or supervised release.

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“At the end of the day this is about our party’s rights under the First Amendment to determine who gets to participate in our party process,” Martin said. “Our party wants to live its values and allow people to participate.”

State Republicans have seen a political opening and pounced on the decision. Even if there is no enforcement, state law still says it would be illegal for non-voters to take part in precinct caucuses.

“What we appreciate in the Republican Party is the rule of law,” Bergstrom said. “The statute is clear on who can participate in the caucus. If you are not part of that statute, you should not be allowed to participate.” She noted that DFL Secretary of State Simon has said the DFL is misreading the court’s decision. But state GOP Chair David Hann, who did not attend the press conference because of illness, has used the decision by the party to criticize Simon for not taking action.

“Elected officials like our Democrat secretary of state — as well as Gov. Walz, Attorney General Ellison and others — have a responsibility to stand up to their own party, call out DFL, and put a stop to this lawless behavior,” Hann said last week.

Simon, a DFL party member, says illegal voting is not enforced by the secretary of state; it is enforced by county attorneys.

“We don’t have badges and guns,” Simon said of his staff. Besides, Simon said, he and the state attorney general successfully defended the suit filed by their own party and got it dismissed.

“Our interpretation is we won, the DFL lost,” Simon said. The court did not strike down the state law that says caucus participation is limited to eligible voters, only saying that because there was no threat of penalty it wouldn’t rule on the First Amendment claim by the DFL. Simon wouldn’t comment on the politics of the DFL decision, only saying that “it is important for any political party to follow the law.”

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The value of endorsement

The endorsement may be a party event, but both parties require candidates to make public pledges to drop out if not endorsed. That means that in districts where one party has an overwhelming political advantage, the endorsement can determine not only the winner of the primary but also the winner of the election overall.

Bergstrom said Monday that the state party has verbal pledges from all GOP candidates for governor whose names will appear on the straw poll ballot that they will not file for the primary if they are not endorsed by a supermajority of the 2,200 state convention delegates gathering in Rochester this May. Only if there is no endorsement can they file without breaking the pledge. Only once in the past 30 years has a non-endorsed GOP candidate for a statewide office won the primary.

DFLers are more likely to successfully buck an endorsement with both Walz and former Gov. Mark Dayton winning primaries against endorsed opponents.

But Martin said it is a fundamental goal of the DFL to coalesce around a single candidate early “so you don’t have to engage in costly primaries, distracting you away from the efforts to take on Republican candidates directly.

“We do put pressure on our candidates to abide by our endorsement,” he said. “If we don’t do that, what’s the point of the whole charade … if we’re not going to put teeth behind it.”

A different kind of caucus

GOP caucuses will look familiar to anyone who has attended before. They will be in person at locations around the state. Voters will sign in, declaring they are eligible to vote, support GOP principles and will not take part in any other party’s caucus. Attendees will select presiding offices and proceed with the straw poll and election of delegates to subsequent conventions.

While Martin said about 30 percent of the DFL’s caucuses will be in-person, mostly in Greater Minnesota, the majority will engage in what the party terms “contactless” caucuses. There will be no virtual gathering, however, via Zoom or other meeting hosting platform. Interested people will fill out a form on dfl.org/caucus that will allow them to run for delegate to the next-level of endorsing conventions and to submit resolutions.

But there will be no election for delegates. According to the party, “in most circumstances, there are enough delegate slots available to ensure everyone in a precinct who runs to be a delegate gets elected. In contactless precincts where that is not the case, delegates will be chosen by lot.”

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Those attending in-person will have to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test.

The decision by the DFL to allow certain people who are ineligible to vote to participate in the caucuses has required its office holders to take positions — or avoid taking positions — on the idea of letting non-citizens and non-eligible voters take part in party nomination processes.

Asked about it Monday, Walz said he favors a pathway to citizenship and restoration of voting when imprisoned people are released from incarceration. But he didn’t specifically endorse the expansion of participation.

“Well everyone in society has a part in what we’re doing,” he said. “Folks that are here have to have a say. And I think we’ve always known we are a big tent. But I think this idea of caucusing, what I love about this is it truly is the most grassroots of opportunities. You’ll have folks that show up that have never done this before and folks that have been there for 70 years. I think that’s healthy, I think voices there are healthy.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she agreed with Simon’s interpretation of the result of the lawsuit.

“I line up with Secretary of State Steve Simon on this issue who I believe is pretty clear that the law doesn’t allow for that,” Hortman said.

MinnPost staff writer Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.