“Minnesota’s current caucus system is no way to elect a president,” GOP state Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington said in a statement issued just three hours after the state’s political party building-block meetings convened in schools, churches and meeting halls Tuesday. We concur, as we suspect do many frustrated Minnesotans — both those who ran the caucus gantlet and those who didn’t but regret that they could not register a presidential preference any other way.
A better way is clear: Minnesota should switch to a primary election to decide its major-party presidential preferences. Garofalo says he will offer a bill to that effect in the legislative session that resumes next week. We’ll cheer him on.
Minnesota used a presidential primary for most of the first half of the 20th century, but it fell out of favor with leaders of both parties in the 1950s and was abandoned in favor of caucuses. From the start, caucuses have been dogged by complaints that they are confusing, insider-dominated affairs that are insufficiently democratic. Requiring citizens to appear at a neighborhood gathering spot between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in order to cast a ballot leaves too many people unable to attend. By comparison, polling places at a primary election would open at 7 a.m., not 7 p.m., and absentee voting would be available.
But the caucus system defects that were on royal display Tuesday were the consequence not of too few participants, but too many. More than 110,000 people attended Republican caucuses, according to the secretary of state’s tally. That shatters the 2008 GOP mark by more than 50,000. Reports of jammed meeting rooms, long lines and insufficient ballots were numerous.
For example, at Senate District 64 caucuses at St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall school, organizers prepared for twice as many participants as they had seen two years ago but still ran out of an informational handout well before the 7 p.m. start time. Perhaps half of caucusgoers missed a planned orientation session when the gym that housed it filled to capacity and closed its doors shortly before 7 p.m. People were still streaming into the school at 7:20 p.m. after standing outdoors in a long, chilly queue, some with young children in tow.
A few were dismayed to learn that DFL caucuses were not in the same location, but instead were miles away. That confusion would be eliminated by a primary. Both party elections would be conducted at the same familiar polling place.
DFL turnout did not exceed 2008’s 220,000, but it ran well into six figures and caused traffic jams and confusion in many locations. For example, 3,000 ballots had been prepared in District 64A, which met at St. Paul Central High School. That wasn’t enough. When ballots ran out, votes were cast on adhesive notes and index cards. The entire lot was hand-counted. That’s a far cry from the ballot security that a primary election would routinely afford.
Defenders of the caucus system tout its value as an opportunity for citizens without means to exercise influence. But participants are allowed to sign in, cast a ballot and leave without joining in the delegate selection and party platform formation sessions that follow. That was a well-exercised option at sites we visited Tuesday. That means that for a goodly share of participants, caucuses already aren’t party-building exercises. They’re highly inconvenient elections. A state that prides itself on well-run elections and a high level of civic participation can do much better.