Julie Strother took off down the middle-school hallway in fast pursuit of her runaway toddler while her husband held onto the baby carrier as their 6-week-old son stirred and fussed.

Having two under 2 years old wasn't enough to keep the young Edina family from joining fellow DFLers at Valley View Middle School for precinct party caucuses.

Thousands of other Minnesotans across the state did the same, filing into schools, churches, libraries and community centers across the state to tend to the nitty-gritty work of political activism. Committed activists along with newbies who were curious came to elect precinct officers, choose delegates for endorsing conventions and debate issues they want incorporated in party platforms.

But for the first time since 1992, they didn't come to register their presidential preference. Voters will go to the polls next week to do that. The change was prompted in part after the 2016 presidential race drew overwhelming crowds that jammed classrooms and community centers.

"Long lines of people showed up and had to leave before they had their voices heard," said Becky Alery, executive director for the Minnesota GOP.

By contrast, Tuesday's caucuses were far less crowded — even sparse in some precincts.

At Edina's South View Middle School, Craig Petersen convened a group of six Republicans for the precinct 1B caucus. "It's a small group but it's cozy," he said. "This is where your voices are first heard."

For many, it's a place where they could find political camaraderie.

"It's a great way to meet some of your neighbors who share your political beliefs," said Brian Evans, spokesman for the Minnesota DFL. "As time goes on, there seems to be fewer and fewer public spaces where folks can meet and discuss issues that are important to the community and build new connections."

Shelby Reitz, a first-timer at a Minnesota Republican caucus, was looking for those connections in Edina. "I'm curious to see how this works," she said before joining a caucus that included only three other women. "We moved here three years ago. I think this is our forever home, so I though this was a good time to get involved."

Caucusgoers come because they care, said Mamie Segall, who attended alongside DFLers. "I want to be involved."

For Susan Wilson, it was her first time at a DFL caucus. She attended the Republican caucus in 2016 because she wanted to vote against Donald Trump. This year she sat with her party's caucus.

"I feel really strongly about getting involved," Wilson said. "If you're apathetic and things happen that you don't like then you don't have a right to complain."

But when she walked into the Edina middle school, she wanted to better understand the reason for a caucus when the state will hold its presidential primary next week. "I wish more people understood it and got involved," she said.

For Henning Schroeder, a German immigrant who became a citizen in 2015, the caucus is the epitome of grassroots engagement.

"It's as bottom-up democracy as you can get," he said. "It's unusual compared to other countries, where these decisions are made in back rooms. This feels very democratic."