A deluge of fresh criticism about long lines and frustrating waits at Minnesota’s precinct caucuses this week is drawing new supporters to an old fight over switching to a primary system.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton took up the cause Thursday, breaking with the head of the party after a wave of complaints about a caucus system where voters jam into gymnasiums and classrooms to make their pick for president.
“All Minnesotans should have the opportunity to participate,” said Dayton, adding that even with Tuesday’s comparatively strong turnout for both parties, only a tiny fraction of Minnesota voters took part. “I think it deserves a very serious consideration.”
Dayton joined a bipartisan list of politically active Minnesotans urging the switch to a presidential primary, which would allow people to vote all day, as with a conventional election.
Hours after complaints of overflowing precincts and scarce parking, state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that he will introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session to switch to a primary.
“This is the first time that I’ve seen the caucuses just fundamentally break down to where people were systematically prohibited from voting because of logistics,” Garofalo said Thursday. “This needs to happen.”
Minnesota has toggled between primaries and caucuses for a century, repealing its primary law in 1957 and re-establishing the system more than 30 years later. It was short-lived: Residents last voted in a presidential primary in 1992. The state suspended the primary for the next election cycle and repealed it outright in 1999.
Political scientist Eric Ostermeier said the debate turns on what state and party leaders want: better control over the process or higher voter participation.
“The momentum has shifted and parties are less able to flex their muscle in this era of an increased desire for transparency,” said Ostermeier, a research associate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who authors the blog Smart Politics. “Parties are always going to want to maintain control, but that control is waning.”
Minnesota’s party chairmen said they support the caucus system, describing it as consistent with the state’s tradition of grass-roots organizing.
The current system allows people more influence in party politics, said GOP Chairman Keith Downey.
Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin noted that caucuses allow underdog candidates who are focused on building grass-roots support a better chance than a primary, where money and TV commercials are more important.
Recent efforts to shift to a primary have gone nowhere in the Legislature. State Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, for instance, pushed a similar measure in 2009. She said the effort failed because Democrats were riding high after Barack Obama had just won the presidency. She said there was little incentive to push for greater participation since the next contested caucus wouldn’t come for eight years.
Like Garofalo, she believes now is the time, particularly with so much focus on the wide-open presidential race in both parties. “Everybody has a stake in the outcome,” said Rest, who’s working on a Senate version of Garofalo’s proposal.
Weighing the alternatives
The caucus system is controlled by each party, and staffed entirely by an army of volunteers. The parties are solely responsible for tabulating the ballots and announcing the results.
State officials estimate it would cost $3 million to move to a primary system.
“The alternative is we have a volunteer-based process that blocks people from voting and there’s zero election integrity,” Garofalo said. “Does it cost more? Yes, but we’re actually going to get free and fair elections, unlike the current process.”
But it is not clear whether primaries result in significantly higher turnout. Minnesota’s 1992 presidential primary had a turnout of 337,158, or 10.4 percent of registered voters, according to the Secretary of State. Tuesday’s caucuses drew more than 315,000 people, about 8 percent of voters.
Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness summed up Tuesday’s caucuses as “long lines, a tremendous amount of chaos. … It leaves people frustrated and confused and not feeling good about their participation.”
He said he arrived at his precinct location to find more than 100 people standing in line, with volunteers struggling to sign them up in time. Ness said he grabbed a sign-up sheet himself and walked through the line to get people more people inside.
Minnesota has a “proud heritage of very broad participation in our electoral process, and yet clearly the caucus system compared to a primary system limits the scope of participation, ” said Ness. “It doesn’t line up well with the values of our state.”