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Many Minnesota partisans have recently been saying out loud what many of us have said for years: Precinct caucuses are a major contributor to the angry, political division that permeates politics today.

As a former statewide endorsed candidate and longtime Republican activist, I can testify that caucuses serve no meaningful purpose in selecting qualified candidates or restoring civil debate in our state's political realm. It's time for them to go. For this to happen, the Legislature and governor must act now. We need to join 41 other states that feature political party primary elections instead of the bygone era of caucusing as a method of selecting candidates for elective office.

Precinct caucuses — in both the DFL and Republican parties — have turned into small, insular gatherings filled with hyperpartisan factions that aren't nominating or attracting the most qualified candidates for some very important government offices.

Minnesota political activists have for decades been hoodwinked into believing that precinct caucuses are a grassroots effort that allows average citizens the opportunity to meet and endorse candidates and develop policy platforms for their respective political parties. Perhaps that was true 100 years ago. But those halcyon days of peaceful, neighborhood political gatherings are a thing of the distant past.

A dirty little political secret is that hardly anyone in Minnesota identifying with either major political party participates in caucuses these days. A prime example of how they have atrophied happened this year in Pennington County. On Feb. 27, 21 Republicans showed up to caucus. This, in a county of 14,000 residents. Contrast that with the presidential primary election, held one week later. By March 5 in Pennington County, 752 Republican residents had voted in that election, in a process that allowed citizens modern options to cast a secret ballot anytime on Election Day; they could also apply for and complete an absentee ballot as well as casting a vote in person during 46 days of early voting — all election modernizations not allowed under Republican caucus rules. When given the choice, voters prefer making their choice known via a private voting booth, not in a neighborhood public meeting under the watchful eye of the most partisan activists in their community.

Furthermore, precinct caucuses are an extremely insular process with very few participants regardless of location or political party. Precinct caucus convention delegates reward hyperpartisan activists with political endorsement, a method that allows candidates to receive voter lists and fundraising help from their political party. Volunteer caucus chairs or nominating committee members have neither the time nor experience to conduct background checks on prospective candidates, nor are they trained to determine whether candidates are mentally qualified to run for office or in compliance with existing state campaign laws.

The caucus endorsement process serves no real purpose in recent years except to host a political convention where partisans gather to confer political party endorsement upon a candidate whom most citizens know little or nothing about. Trust me when I say that most Minnesotans today have never participated in a political endorsing convention, nor would they want to. And political independents? They have no role whatsoever in a caucus state except to stay home on a cold February night while a handful of their neighbors "go to caucus" with fewer and fewer participants every two years.

But even more important, partisan endorsement isn't always conferring advantage on those candidates willing to endure the lengthy and costly process. To find the last time the state DFL convention nominated a successful, non-incumbent candidate for governor, you have to go back 50 (!) years when Wendell Anderson was the DFL Party nominee. More recently, neither Govs. Mark Dayton nor Tim Walz received the party's blessing at their attempt. As for "down ballot" races, the DFL nominee for attorney general in 2018 barely mustered 10% in the August DFL primary; he was crushed by eventual DFL nominee and current Attorney General Keith Ellison.

The Republican statewide track record is even more dismal. Our GOP state convention delegates haven't selected a winning nominee for governor since Tim Pawlenty secured the endorsement in 2002 and again in 2006 — 18 years of embarrassing statewide defeat at the only ballot box that counts: the general election.

It doesn't have to be this way — the most recent presidential primary election proved that even when both political parties don't have a high-stakes primary election that will determine the respective party nominee, Minnesotans still show up to vote. Going back to 2018 when both parties had statewide contests, nearly 1 million Minnesotans showed up to vote: 28% of those registered statewide. Imagine how many would participate if the election wasn't held in the midst of prime summer vacation time.

Immediately after the 2002 election, newly re-elected Gov. Walz and the two new legislative leaders, Kari Dziedzic and Melissa Hortman, clearly understood the appeal of an early presidential primary. They appealed to the Democratic National Committee to move Minnesota's presidential primary date to become first in the nation. One of their arguments in favor of moving that primary was to engage many more voters in that process. Perhaps that dream will become a reality one day, but in the interim we could move our state primary to March to coincide with the presidential primary. A quick look at legislation introduced during the current legislative session shows that some policymakers are prepared to move away from caucuses and institute a partisan primary election. While the Legislature continues to make changes in existing state election law, abolishing precinct caucuses would be a welcomed and, for once, bipartisan change that could easily be enacted yet this year.

Imagine how exciting it would be for Minnesota to host a regular March primary election for statewide and local candidates. A real political primary election generates interest, recruits volunteers, assists with name recognition and fundraising, but most important, allows anyone who wants to participate in our election process to do so. It's a first step toward hosting a more inclusive election process with greater civility — a bipartisan, timely and welcomed change to our state's election law.

It's time, legislators and Gov. Walz, to scrap the antiquated political caucus system and allow Minnesotans the freedom to participate in and vote in a March primary election.

Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.