It's time to make the case against caucuses.
Now that caucus night has come and gone, Minnesotans of many different political stripes are probably ready to agree on at least one issue:
This state needs a presidential primary.
Minnesota's political parties have a legitimate interest in building membership and volunteer rolls, but the caucus system is the wrong way to go about it. For many, caucuses like those held around the state Tuesday night turn the democratic process into an exercise in frustration and inconvenience.
First, consider the hours. In a regular election, whether primary or general, you can vote from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. But on caucus night your only shot comes between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. If your job makes that impossible -- or if the hours conflict with a class or choir practice or a child-care schedule -- you're out of luck. And, not to trivialize the issue, there are people for whom even missing a favorite TV show is a powerful disincentive. (Believers in the caucus system might scorn voters who care more about "House" than about politics, and might even suggest that the process is better off without them. But a democracy shouldn't draw such distinctions. Either the greatest possible turnout is best or it isn't.)
Second, once a voter is through the door, the caucus itself is likely to be a disappointment. This year's "presidential preference ballot" was binding for the Democrats, but it was only a beauty contest for the Republicans. Leading up to last night, it looked as if the GOP was on the verge of choosing its candidate -- and Minnesotans deserved an opportunity to participate in that choice, not merely to comment on it.
The Democrats also have a U.S. Senate nomination to make, and that decision too would best be put to voters in a primary election, ideally in June. Under the current system, delegates elected last night will go to local conventions, where some will be elected to the state convention, which will decide whether to endorse a Senate nominee. That process -- electing delegates to go to a meeting where they will elect delegates to go to another meeting -- gives a disproportionate voice to those with a high tolerance for meetings, not to mention time and resources. Of course, the parties need people who are willing to help develop platforms and participate in other ways -- but that shouldn't be the price of having a say in U.S. Senate nominations.
Perhaps the most antidemocratic feature of the caucus system, though, is that it strips away the privacy of the voting booth. To one degree or another, participants must reveal their political leanings to their neighbors. In many communities, that can be a deterrent -- for clergy, for schoolteachers, for retailers and many others.
There were reports during the day of voters showing up at their usual polling places, expecting to be able to vote in a primary election. People are eager this year to have a say. That's a goal Minnesota's major parties should want to facilitate, not obstruct.