After more than a quarter-million Minnesota voters swamped Tuesday's DFL and GOP precinct caucuses and encountered long lines, traffic jams, makeshift ballots and other logistical headaches, some wondered Wednesday if a presidential primary might be a better way to pick candidates.
"I was pretty steam- ed up by the time I got home," said Kirsten O'Callaghan, an ad agency production manager who gave up trying to attend her caucus in Eden Prairie because she couldn't find a place to park by the time presidential voting had ended.
"It was like trying to move sand through an hourglass, funneling all these people through in a limited time," O'Callaghan said. "There's got to be a way to make it easier."
On Wednesday, two DFL legislators introduced a bill that would establish a traditional primary.
That idea got a mixed reaction from the two main political parties, with the state's DFL chairman saying he'd consider it and his Republican counterpart rejecting it out of hand.
Meanwhile, numerous caucus-goers, many of them first-timers who found the process daunting and frustrating, vented on blogs and complained to party officials. Some called for a switch to primaries.
Caucuses have long been praised as a pure expression of direct democracy, where face-to-face contact and grass-roots organization can trump big money, celebrity and special interests. They've also been criticized as insular affairs that disenfranchise anyone who can't attend, including elderly people in nursing facilities, second-shift workers or people who are traveling.
In a primary, polls are open all day, accommodating many schedules. At caucuses, presidential votes must be cast during a brief window of time at the beginning of an evening of parliamentary tasks that can go on for several hours. Voters who can't attend at that time can't participate, and the crowds, as on Tuesday, can be overwhelming.
'This was obviously a zoo'
Terese Reiling-Holden, a commercial real estate broker from Edina, gave up and drove home because backed-up traffic made it impossible for her to get anywhere close to her caucus site.
"I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't have a chance to vote," she said. "Everyone should have the opportunity to participate. What they've got now is too exclusionary."
Michael Lee, a computer programmer from St. Louis Park, fared better in casting his presidential vote, but he, too was fuming.
"This was obviously a zoo," he said. "I can see the virtues of the system, meeting with your neighbors and all that, but there's got to be a better way to choose a presidential candidate."
Interviews with caucus-goers found a wide range of reactions. Some said they like the idea of peeling off the presidential contest from the more mundane party-building work that is the nuts and bolts of the caucuses.
"I certainly think the presidential preference vote should be done in a primary," said Bob Lysak, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota who caucused in Minneapolis. "It should be more convenient for more people, so you could go whenever you wanted during the day.
"If the parties want turnout, they should make the process as accessible as possible, especially now that this state matters," he said.
Legislators make proposal
That kind of reaction prompted Sens. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, and Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, to announce their plan to decouple the presidential contest from the caucus system by the next presidential election cycle. Their bill would allow voters to participate in a primary similar to a general election without requiring them to be involved in the caucus process now run by political parties.
Rest said party caucuses would take place at a later date. "We are always looking for ways to make participating in public life easier and more accessible," she said.
Rest and Scheid said they witnessed frustrated caucusgoers at crowded precinct locations, confused about how the process worked and even about where they should be.
Their bill would still allow the state's political parties to determine the date of their caucuses and whether the primary votes should be considered binding.
Tuesday's turnout -- more than 200,000 DFLers and more than 60,000 Republicans -- was not an aberration, so lawmakers should work now to correct potential problems, Rest said.
When it comes to presidential politics, Minnesota is something of an anomaly, one of only 14 states that opt for caucuses instead of primaries in the process to select presidential candidates.
Although Minnesota was the first state to create a statewide primary system, it was scrapped in favor of caucuses in 1959. During the two previous presidential election cycles, primary upsets in the state had embarrassed leaders in both parties (Dwight Eisenhower's second-place finish to Harold Stassen in 1952 helped carry Ike past Robert Taft on the Republican side, and Democrats bucked the party and picked Estes Kefauver over Adlai Stevenson in 1956). Those experiences soured the parties on a direct primary election.
A one-time detour occurred in 1992, when the Legislature revived the primary only to see it essentially ignored by candidates, the news media and most voters because it occurred so late in the nominating process. Three years later, the Legislature killed the primary.
Party leaders react
On Wednesday, DFL chairman Brian Melendez tentatively endorsed the new push for a primary. "It's definitely worth talking about," he said. "The e-mails I've gotten since last night from people I don't know run strongly in favor of the primary."
He said he has sent a letter to the party's district chairpersons telling them that "switching to a presidential primary -- while keeping the caucuses for other races and for party governance -- is worth talking about."
As for the logistical headaches that plagued Tuesday's caucuses, "We reached our limit last night," Melendez said. "The caucus system is going to have a very hard time coping with numbers like that. We can handle 80,000, and we could have handled 100,000, but we couldn't handle 200,000."
GOP chairman Ron Carey said he and other party leaders adamantly oppose "any change from our caucus system."
If a presidential primary becomes law, "they can put it on the calender if they want ... but it will remain a beauty contest for us," he said.
Party bylaws dictate that the GOP's presidential preference be expressed exclusively through the process that ends with the party's state convention, he said.
Carey also said he believes that splitting a primary from the caucuses would have the unintended consequence of ensuring that "the only people who show up for the caucuses would be the true insiders and geeks."
"It would create the exact opposite of what the proponents say they want," he said. "They're shooting at the wrong target."
Logistical headaches "can be dealt with," Carey said. "You don't have to throw out a process that's worked well."
Staff writer Mark Brunswick contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184