The invitation three state political party chairs extended to Minnesotans last week to attend the precinct caucus of their choice tonight might be seen as an appeal to self-interest. Not theirs — yours.
To be sure, the heads of those parties — Republican, Independence and Democratic-Farmer-Labor — have a stake in the turnout at meetings that form the base of their respective organizational pyramids. Their personal success depends in part on grass-roots growth and giving.
But the purpose of precinct caucuses goes well beyond party-building. Caucuses give Minnesotans a convenient and affordable opportunity to magnify their influence on their government, at every level. To any citizen who ever wanted more say over government than the ballot box alone affords, caucuses offer an open door.
As Independence Party Chair Mark Jenkins said, participating in caucuses is one way to “make this your government, not someone else’s.” The GOP’s Keith Downey called the meetings “an important civic opportunity and responsibility to maintain the people’s ownership of government.” The DFL’s Ken Martin added that robust “people-powered” grass-roots activity is a counterweight to growing special-interest influence in the political process. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowing for more corporate spending on politics, caucuses “are more necessary now than they’ve ever been,” he said.
Caucuses have a bad rap for being insiders’ domains. In fact, most caucuses are inclusive and welcoming. Any Minnesotan who will be eligible to vote on Nov. 4 is eligible to participate. You need not be a firm party loyalist to attend, though you are likely to be asked to affirm that you generally agree with the principles of the party whose caucus you choose to attend. While the three major parties are not active in every state precinct, there’s likely a caucus of the party you prefer near you. (See accompanying text.)
The Independence Party offers an online caucus as well — an idea we hope the other two major parties will borrow. Technology offers the political parties a chance to amend a flaw in caucuses — their exclusion of people unable to attend a sometimes lengthy meeting on a cold winter’s night. Republican and Independence caucuses will offer the added attraction of nonbinding straw polls. Independence Party caucusgoers can register opinions on two issues: a proposed minimum-wage increase and copper-nickel mining expansion in northeastern Minnesota.
Participants in GOP caucuses can vote for their favorites in races that have developed for the party’s nominations for governor, U.S. senator and the Sixth District U.S. House seat.
The DFL lacks high-profile intraparty contests for governor and senator, and it won’t be conducting a straw poll. But contests for a handful of open legislative seats and for secretary of state (DFL incumbent Mark Ritchie is retiring) will be shaped by who comes to caucuses and who the caucuses elect to subsequent endorsing conventions.
In places like St. Paul’s District 64B and Duluth’s District 7A, we expect ample turnouts to demonstrate that while caucuses may be an old-fashioned way to organize a political party, they’re not out of fashion with today’s Minnesotans.