Political Conventions, and why you might want to go

I was actually going to write up a FAQ on caucuses next, but I got hung up on not knowing the answer to something for the GOP caucuses. I sent out e-mails, had to wait for a response, and decided that in the meantime, I might as well write my post on political conventions.

When you go to your caucus, if you stay for the meeting, one of the questions you will hear is whether you’d like to be a delegate to the next-level convention. Most of the time, there are enough slots that anyone who wants to can sign up to be a delegate.

Sometimes there are a few more people who want to be delegates than there are slots, and they’ll ask if anyone’s willing to be an alternate. If you’re an alternate, the theory is that you’ll fill in if any of the delegates from your precinct don’t show up. (Most of the time, all the alternates who show up get promoted to delegates.)

When you vote in the fall, your ballot will have the Presidential race at the top. In Minnesota, we are not voting on the Governor (or other statewide offices like Attorney General) this year, nor are either of our Senators currently up for re-election. However, all our U.S. House Representatives are running for re-election and that race will be on the ballot. (If you are in the 2nd district, this is a particularly interesting year. If you’re represented by Betty McCollum or Keith Ellison, not so much.)

Continuing down the ballot, you will also see your state legislators. You have a State Senator and a State Representative, and both races will be on the ballot. Finally, depending on how your city structures things, you may have city races this year. (Not in St. Paul or Minneapolis, though.)

The DFL endorses people for most of the non-judicial races. The statewide people are endorsed at the State Convention, but the legislative races are endorsed at the smaller, local-unit conventions and you, if you go, can get to be one of the ones to decide.

(I’m pretty much just making this post about the DFL, because I have never been to a Republican convention. I expect that they are very similar in most ways, but I don’t know in which key ways they differ.)

How much the DFL’s endorsement matters varies tremendously by race. Historically, in the very big statewide races — U.S. Senate and Governor — it doesn’t actually matter much. In the smaller races, though, especially legislative races, it often basically decides the race. My district would be a good exapmle of this. I live in a solidly DFL district in St. Paul (and previously, I lived in a solidly DFL district in Minneapolis). In this sort of district, legislators who are DFL incumbents almost always win, and when they retire, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the office nearly always wins. So any time there’s an opening, the big race is for the endorsement.

The endorsement for State Senator and State Rep is done at the Senate District (/House District) convention. That is the thing to which you can probably become a delegate, if you want.

(The other major thing that happens at the local-unit conventions is that they elect delegates who get to go to the State Convention. I’ll explain that in more detail further down.)

State Legislature Endorsements for Beginners

So first off, your district may not have an upcoming vacancy. There’s still a convention when there aren’t any vacancies, but endorsing a bunch of unopposed incumbents is pretty dull.

But, sometimes you have an open seat; sometimes the incumbent has done something infuriating and generated a bunch of opposition challenging him or her for endorsement; or maybe you live in a swing district, and there’s currently someone from the other party in that seat and your party has a shot at retaking it. (If you live in a district that is a safe seat for the other side, these endorsements tend to be more “let’s volunteer Fred, since he’s not here.” Okay, I exaggerate slightly.)

Let’s say you have an open seat because your State Senator is retiring, and let’s say you signed up to be a delegate when you were at your precinct caucus. There are several hundred delegates who will be meeting at your Senate District Convention to decide on an endorsement, and one of them is you. That means that each candidate who is running, and there will probably be quite a few, really needs your support. Instead of convincing 50% of the thousands of voters in your district, they need to win over 60% of the delegates — a much, much smaller group.

So if you’re a delegate, you can expect to be contacted, personally, either by phone or by door-knocking, by each of the people who are running. They may not be experts on your particular set of concerns, but you will never have a more attentive ear from a (future) legislator than when they’re running and you’re a delegate. Since they need strong enthusiasm from a small number of people, you can expect that they will have the time to answer your questions and respond to your very specific concerns, whatever they are.

In addition to chatting with candidates, you might also want to chat with politically-connected friends in your district who can dish any interesting back-room gossip. I recommend having a favorite, a list of people who would be fine with you, and a list of people you really don’t want to see get the nod.

At the Convention

So for your imaginary open Senate Seat, let’s say you’ve got five candidates who’ve filed. After talking to all of them, your favorite is Andrea Jackson. Your least favorite is Bill Smith. You think that Carmela Garcia or Dan Feinman would also be fine. You think that Esmeralda Moonbeam sounds like a weirdo.

When you first arrive, you will have to check in with the organizers to get your credentials. There will probably be a line. Once you sign in, they will hand you a printed form on colored paper (it’s about the size, shape, and weight of an ancient computer punch card, if that means anything to you) with your precinct and ward printed on it along with the word DELEGATE. It will be on a ribbon or piece of yarn so you can wear it around your neck. You are expected to do so.

Next, you should check in with your candidate’s campaign. (They’ll have a table.) Tell them you’re a supporter, and they will give you a t-shirt or button or both. Put those on, too. The t-shirt serves a couple of purposes, but the most important is that it communicates to your candidate’s campaign that they need to let you know if there’s something they need you to do. Often, candidates want all their supporters to come up on the stage and stand behind them when it’s time for them to make a speech. More crucially, sometimes there’s some interesting parliamentary maneuver that someone is trying to pull, or trying to thwart, in which case your candidate’s volunteers need to know that you need to get the message on what’s happening. You might not realize that it’s critically important that you vote NO on some very routine-sounding procedural thing until your candidate’s campaign tells you.

These are always held at schools, so far as I can tell. Typically the convention itself is in the school auditorium, lunch room, or gym. Each campaign gets a classroom that’s like their campaign clubhouse. They will have snacks for their supporters (another reason for your t-shirt!) and when it gets to be dinner time, they’ll order pizza. Usually, when I go to a convention, I check in with my candidate first thing, then go track down their room so I know where to go when I get hungry.

There will be a section of the auditorium that’s reserved for your precinct, and that’s where you’ll be spending most of the day.

This is a Really Long Meeting

Typically the convention gets called to order at 10 a.m., although a lot of delegates arrive late. There is a ton of time at these that is spent on stuff that makes you wonder why you gave up a lovely spring Saturday to go sit in a high school auditorium. Like ten-minute-long debates on whether some person should be allowed to speak for two minutes.

There are people who are much better at running efficient conventions than others, you will discover if you go to a bunch of these. I am a big fan of the efficient people.

Bring an extra battery for your smartphone, bring your knitting, bring a book.

Speeches!

There will be lots of speeches.

Typically there’s some time allocated for candidate Q&A, so that people who have not made up their minds will have information to go on.

Lots of elected officials come to speak, either about their own upcoming race or to get you revved up about the DFL generally. At various conventions I’ve heard Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, R.T. Rybak, Chris Coleman, various and sundry City Council reps, Park Board people, County Attorneys… never all of the headliners at one convention, mind you. (They try to spread themselves out.)

If there’s a state-wide race coming up, you’ll also hear either from candidates or from people who are there to speak on their behalf.

 

When it comes time to really deal with the people running for State Senate, there are official speeches from each candidate (that’s when you might get herded up to stand behind them. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to.)

It is entirely up to you how much attention you pay to any of this. At the last convention I went to, there were large portions of it that I couldn’t hear at all due to bad acoustics and a lot of ambient noise, so I just ignored it.

You may also find yourself talking to candidates and campaigns through all of this. Especially if you look around the crowd and notice that your t-shirt color is super outnumbered — that’s a good sign that you should start thinking about your fallback choice. People from the other campaigns will find you and say, “hi, can I talk to you about Carmela?” or “can I talk to you about Bill?” They’re not necessarily trying to sway you from Andrea; they’re trying to get you to consider their candidate as your fallback.

When I get this question, I usually say, “sure!” and let them give me their pitch. One of the questions I often ask volunteers is, “why did you decide to support Carmela?” because their answers are often very enlightening. (Unless it’s, “oh! well, she’s my mom.”) At an actual convention, they’ll sometimes ask you, “would you like to speak to Carmela directly?”

You may get asked this same question by the people you’re sitting near. Feel free to talk about what you find appealing about the person you’re supporting! Remember that you’re not trying to convince them to drop their candidate for yours; you’re presenting reasons why your candidate would be a terrific second choice, if their candidate gets dropped from the ballot early.

 

Balloting

I am always shocked at how late in the day it is when we finally start balloting.

This is the bit where you really need to be wearing your credentials. If you were an alternate, a lot of the time everyone present just gets automatically upgraded, but if that didn’t happen, definitely check in before balloting and see if you can get an upgrade. If not, you won’t even be allowed in the room when the balloting happens.

They will seat everyone in their precinct, and they will give carefully counted ballots to the precinct captain, who will bring them, distribute them, and collect them.

Right before the balloting happens, they “freeze the floor,” which means that they shut the doors and no one else is allowed in. If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you can literally use your chance to vote in that round. Once the countdown starts to voting, get into the room and stay there. It won’t actually take long, and you’ll have plenty of time to pee or get a snack while they’re counting all the ballots.

Then they count the first ballot, which also takes forever. (It speeds up a lot as they eliminate candidates.)

The Resolutions

Somewhere in this whole process you’ll get handed a packet of resolutions and a scan-tron sheet to fill in. This is a compilation of all the resolutions that got passed by precinct caucuses, compiled together by people who did their best to roll stuff together so that “MN should have a primary!” and “caucuses are the worst, holy cow, THE ABSOLUTE WORST, and we should have presidential primaries like every other civilized state” get combined into something concise.

During the various periods of downtime you can go through this packet and mark the scan-tron ballot to indicate the ones you find particularly important or unimportant. There’s no limit to how many you can mark. This data gets compiled after the convention and forwarded on to the platform committee.

Dropping Candidates and More Balloting

Once the results come back, they report the results and then immediately start the countdown to freeze the floor for the next round.

They will drop any candidates that got below a certain threshhold of votes. The required percentage goes up with each round, so each time it gets harder to stay on the ballot — or maybe they’ve switched to just dropping the lowest vote-getter until we’re down to two? I can’t remember if that’s officially how they do it, or if it’s just how functionally it tends to work out.

In this make-believe Senate race, we’re going to say that in the very first round of balloting, they drop Esmeralda Moonbeam and Dan Feinman.

Esmeralda and Dan’s people now have to vote for someone else. (Or leave. Sometimes they just leave.) At this imaginary convention, you’re seated next to an Esmeralda supporter, who is very disappointed that her candidate dropped out, but decides to vote for Andrea because you’re wearing an Andrea t-shirt and she has bonded with you over knitting so thinks your favorite candidate would be a good choice.

(At the last convention I went to, the woman across the table from me told me that I seemed like a delightful person and did I know any single women who might be interested in her son? I said, “well, I do have some single friends. But, um, I kind of don’t have their permission to randomly matchmake for them at political conventions?” and she said, “oh, here, let me give you my card.” I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)

You usually have a couple more rounds of balloting. Sometimes this is expedited by people seeing that they have no realistic chance and pre-emptively dropping out so as not to waste everyone’s time. Eventually you get down to two people.

The Final Face-Off and All the Fun Ways This Can Go Awry

In order to get the endorsement, a candidate needs 60% of the ballots. So you get down to those last two, and there’s a split.

At that point, a couple of things can happen.

The most frequent outcome I’ve seen is that some people shift. If I came in planning to support Andrea, and she’s made it into the final two but she’s got 45% of the vote and Carmela has 55%, and I’m fine with Carmela, I’ll usually go ahead and shift. Enough people do that, and voila, on the next ballot Carmela has the 60%.

If things are very close, or if this is an acrimonious campaign where the two sides feel very strongly that the opposing candidate is unacceptable, there’s more likely to be a deadlock. The very first Senate District Convention I went to ran until after 10 p.m. It can turn in a test of endurance.

Frequently, when it’s clear no one will shift, there’s an adjournment without an endorsement. There are a number of ways in which this can happen. That very late-night SD Convention, we weren’t allowed to vote for adjournment until after a certain number of ballots, but once we’d racked up the required number of rounds, we could adjourn with a simple majority and didn’t need 60%. And that’s what happened.

At a Minneapolis City Convention some years back, both campaigns sent representatives up to propose an adjournment (making it clear that this was desired on both sides). It was very clear even after the first ballot that things were sufficiently split that there wasn’t going to be an endorsement, and so we had a (surprisingly amicable) agreement to adjourn.

In order for a convention to conduct business, you need a quorum: there has to be a certain number of people there. So sometimes a campaign will herd all its people out of the room, then call the quorum, usually right before a floor freeze. If a quorum is not present the convention is required to adjourn immediately. (If you get grabbed by someone wearing your candidate’s t-shirt saying “out, get out, get out!” … that’s the tactic they’re attempting.) This can massively backfire if not enough people leave the room — since at that point, you’ve just yanked a bunch of your supporters out of the room and they won’t be able to vote on that ballot and the other candidate will happily coast to endorsement.

The other risk with using the “break the quorum” approach is that when a convention just adjourns without finishing its business, the local central committee has the option of doing an endorsement. (I think in theory this is an option with a planned adjournment as well, but much less likely. Or maybe you usually pass a “no going behind our back and endorsing someone” motion as your adjourn? Usually by that point in the process I’m so desperate to get the hell out I’m not paying close attention.)

Picking Delegates for the State Convention

One of the other agenda items at the Senate District convention is picking delegates to go on to the State Convention. There are always more people who want to go than slots available, so to send delegates, we do Walking Subcaucuses.

People “nominate subcaucuses,” which means they go up to the microphone and suggest groups. Sometimes the groups are to support a specific candidate for whatever major statewide office is currently up for grabs; sometimes they are uncommitted, but with a specific focus on a certain issue. The idea is that those delegates will go to the State Convention with the goal of endorsing whichever candidate is the best on whatever their particular issue is.

So if you’re sitting there, you’ll hear people go up to the microphone and say things like, “Uncommitted for Environmental Issues,” or “Uncommitted for Stop Global Warming Now,” or “Uncommitted for Education.” As well as “People for Mike Cerisi” or “Minnesotans for Al Franken,” and there was a trend for a while where a dozen different people would all nominate the same candidate but with a different phrasing, like “Al Franken for CHOICE” or “Al Franken for VETERANS” or “Al Franken for KITTENS AND PUPPIES AND RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS.”

The organizers will then announce where everyone should go. Groups that are obviously related (like Environmental Issues and Stop Global Warming) will always go next to each other so that they can easily combine (…because they totally will).

Now it’s time for everyone to move around! (This is why it’s called a walking subcaucus.) You pick your favorite subcaucus and physically go over and hang out with them. If you have a favorite candidate for the contested statewide office, you go stand with that group. If you want to send uncommitted delegates for some issue, pick an issue.

Someone will run around and physically count everyone and then they will announce a number that gives a subcaucus “viability.” That means that your subcaucus needs to have that many people in it in order to qualify for one delegate and one alternate. If the number is 12, and you have 11 people, you look around for a person at loose ends or a smaller subcaucus you can absorb. If the number is 12, and you have 5 people, you might look for a larger subcaucus you can join as a group, or you might just go your separate ways. In any case, they give you a few minutes to shuffle around and redivide, and then they freeze the floor, count everyone again, then tell each subcaucus how many delegates they get.

So let’s say you’re in a subcaucus of 14 people and will have one delegate and one alternate. Now you have to pick your delegate and alternate. Let’s say you have four people who would love to go to the State Convention: typically each person gets a minute or two to make a speech to the rest of the subcaucus about why they’d be a good person to send, and then you vote, probably just by raising hands and counting. The top vote-getter is the delegate, the runner up is usually the alternate, and I am trying to remember if the DFL still mandates gender-balance because if it does, then it’s the nearest runner-up of the opposite gender.

If you actually go to the State Convention

It lasts for multiple days and I’ve never been elected as a delegate, so I can’t tell you much about what it’s like.

Other Conventions

So there’s a Congressional District Convention (for your U.S. House seat) that will be critical this year in the 2nd District, since Kline is stepping down. I don’t remember if they send a subset of the State Convention delegates or if that one gets its own Walking Subcaucus process.

In Minneapolis, in years with city races, there may be a Ward Convention if you need to endorse a candidate for City Council, and there’s a City Convention to endorse candidates for Mayor, School Board, and Park Board. There’s also a County Convention where candidates for County Board, Sheriff, County Attorney, etc. get endorsed. St. Paul does a similar set of conventions — Ward, City, County — but has no Park Board. City offices vary some by city.

Last year in St. Paul, the school board race was particularly contentious. Sufficiently so that we had to do walking subcaucuses at my precinct caucus to select delegates to go to the City Convention. Usually you can just sign up to go to Ward or City Conventions.

 

So in summary

If you go to your next-level convention, you will have to spend a weekend day, often at the point when the weather is finally turning nice, sitting in a high school auditorium listening to people give speeches.

However, some years and in some districts, this can give you a truly outsized piece of political influence.

Worth it or not? Very much up to you. If imagining sitting through all this makes you want to gnaw off a limb to escape, don’t put yourself through it. If you think you’d like to give it a try, sign up! (And you’re definitely allowed to sign up and not go.)

 

 

Minnesota Caucuses: What Actually Happens

One of the reasons why caucuses are fundamentally such a bad way to pick presidential candidates in Minnesota of all places is that Minnesotans are kind of hypersensitive to embarrassment and find it horrifying to be somewhere that everyone else knows the rules, and they don’t.

There’s this little booklet in Episcopal churches about What to Expect if you come worship with Episcopalians and one of the points on which they reassure you is that they will not embarrass you. If you’ve ever been in a church where they made all the newcomers/visitors stand up so they could clap for you, you know exactly why the Episcopalians put that note in.

So, yeah, caucuses. They don’t make newcomers stand up so they can clap for you! Well, maybe there’s a caucus convener somewhere who does, but it is definitely not part of the agenda. Also, if you want to go to a caucus because you’re a passionate supporter of some candidate but the whole process seems sort of freaky, definitely get in touch with the campaign and tell them your precinct and ask if they can set you up with a buddy.

You can watch the DFL’s “What to Expect at your Precinct Caucus” video, or keep reading for my take.

Something everyone should know going in: caucuses are run by volunteers. Many of these volunteers have never done this before; they maybe went to a two-hour training on how to run a caucus. If you find yourself thinking, “omfg I could do this better than these losers,” you are probably correct, and if you’re willing, you can almost certainly have that opportunity!

Arriving

Your caucus will probably be held at a school. Most likely, everyone in your ward will be at the same school, with each precinct in a separate classroom.

In a presidential year with an interesting contest, attendance skyrockets. If you’ve ever been to a caucus before, you should have received a reminder card in the mail, and apparently if you bring that along it can speed things up a bit. (I predict that maybe 1 in 100 people who receive that card will think to bring it.) The thing you really want to be sure you know before you go is your ward and precinct. In fact, I checked out my Senate District Convention’s caucus page (find your own local unit here) and they had all the info down to which classroom at the school my precinct will be in. The more info like that you can track down before you head over, the more likely it is that you can skip past the long lines and head straight to the right spot. The long lines are probably not people waiting for ballots: they’re usually people who need to be told which precinct they live in.

If you can walk over to your caucus, you’ll be happy that you didn’t have to park. If you drive, leave plenty of time for parking.

(If you’re reading this in 2017 or 2018 instead of 2016, disregard that advice: off-year caucuses are a vastly smaller crowd.)

Signing In

Once you’ve gotten into the school and figured out where you’re going, you’ll probably wind up in another line to get into the classroom where your precinct is. You will sign in at the door, and usually they hand out ballots as people sign in.

You do not have to be a registered party member of anything in order to attend a precinct caucus. However, when you sign in, you’re affirming that you consider yourself generally a Democrat (if you’re at a DFL caucus) or a Republican (if you’re at a Republican caucus). You’re also affirming that you’ll be able to legitimately vote on November 8th, and that you live in the precinct.

If you’re planning to move before November 8th, that’s fine, you can caucus in your current precinct and vote at your new address in November.

How the Meetings Are Run

These meetings are run Robert’s Rules type procedures, so there are a bunch of somewhat goofy hoops that get jumped through.  The caucus convener calls the meeting to order and then the group as a whole gets to elect a person to run the meeting. In theory, this could be a hotly contested battle. In practice, people are usually happy to vote for the person who went to the training session on how you run a caucus.

There’s an agenda, which the meeting adopts. People make motions and second motions. If you’re one of the 16-year-olds at the meeting, you are allowed to participate in those parts of the meeting. (Edited to add: letting 16-year-olds participate in caucus business may be strictly a DFL thing.)

If you’re at a DFL caucus, you should turn your presidential preference ballot in before eight. If you don’t want to stay for the meeting, you can come, sign in, get your ballot, vote, hand it back to a volunteer, and leave.

If you’re at a Republican caucus, ballots will be distributed as the first order of business and then collected. (You are then free to leave, if that’s all you wanted to do.)

Resolutions

One of the things that happens at caucuses are resolutions. If you want to bring a resolution, the DFL resolutions form is online. Print it out and fill in your action item. You can skip the bits that say “whereas” and if you insist on putting those in they’re supposed to go on the back and you’re not supposed to read them. (I support this change!)

The idea is that the resolutions from the caucuses are used to revise the DFL platform. You can find the DFL platform and the DFL Action Agenda online. Before proposing a resolution, I would encourage you to check to make sure it’s not already in the platform. If there’s time, you’ll get to present your resolution to your precinct caucus, speak briefly about why it’s needed, and everyone will vote on whether to adopt it. The resolutions that get adopted all get passed to a resolutions committee, which prepares them for the Senate District Convention. (More on that in another post.)

Republicans do this, too; I couldn’t find their resolution form online, though. (Edited to add: hey, they put it up! It’s here.)

If you’re in the DFL, this is one of the things you can do at sixteen! You can also vote for or against other people’s resolutions.

Speakers

Local politicians often pop in to speak at precinct caucuses. This includes both currently elected officials and people seeking office. Typically you’ll get visits from your state legislators and city council rep, if they’re members of your party. Occasionally you’ll get a bigger name, like your Congress person or Mayor. If you’ve got an open seat for something pending, you’ll almost certainly see candidates (or people speaking on behalf of candidates).

When someone pops in, they usually catch the eye of the person running the meeting, who will pause the proceedings and request that someone move to let your visitor speak. (You can say, “So moved!” to make the requested motion.)

Recruitment

Part of the purpose of a caucus is party-building, and there are lots of entry-level, truly grassroots volunteer positions that they will be recruiting for.

Sound like fun? Go for it. Seriously, if you hear, “we need a Precinct Associate Chair” and that sounds fun to you, you are exactly the sort of person the DFL hopes to recruit to do it. Don’t worry if you’ve never done anything like it before. There’s a whole elaborate party infrastructure for teaching you what you’re supposed to be doing.

On a more immediate level, they’ll recruit tellers — people to count those ballots everyone turned in.

Some of these volunteer positions are open to people who aren’t eighteen yet. If you’re interested, ask.

Electing Delegates to the Local Organizing Unit Convention

So the next-level political meeting is a convention. Typically things run like this:

  1. Precinct caucuses.
  2. Senate District or County Conventions
    (this is the Local Organizing Unit or LOU convention in the DFL; the Basic Political Organizing Unit or BPOU convention in the Republican party.)
  3. The State Convention
  4. The National Convention

At the precinct caucuses, you elect delegates to the next-level convention. This usually takes the form of the organizer requesting a show of hands, counting, and then passing around a list for people to sign up on.

If you don’t have enough slots, it gets more complicated. But that is actually pretty rare at this level. You do have to be 18 by November 8th in order to be a delegate to the local organizing unit convention.

If you’re a Republican, you may recall that four years ago, Rick Santorum appeared to win the Minnesota caucuses and yet we sent a whole bunch of Ron Paul delegates. This is because the Ron Paul people carefully organized to make sure they sent delegates to the BPOU conventions, and since their preferential ballot wasn’t binding and Santorum’s people didn’t show up … anyway, that seriously annoyed the Republican central committee and the ballot is now binding for both parties. You do not have to go to the Senate District convention (or whatever it is for you) to make sure your presidential candidate gets their due support. I’m going to write another post about what exactly this is and why you might want to go (or really prefer NOT to go) in another post.

Counting the Ballots

If you stick around, all the ballots from your precinct will get counted and they’ll announce the totals. That’s usually the last thing that happens before they adjourn the meeting and everyone goes home.

 

Do you want to be in the room where it happens?

In the presidential primary excitement calendar, Super Tuesday is March 1st. That’s when Minnesota’s political parties hold their caucuses. (Lots of other states, too, but I’m going to focus on Minnesota.)

Both the Democratic and Republican races are interesting enough that I think a lot of people are likely to attend their precinct caucus, many for the first time. So, as a public service, I am writing up information on who can participate in caucuses, how they work, what to expect, and helpful tips. I’ll note that my information is specific to Minnesota —  caucuses do not work the same everywhere.

However, something that should be true everywhere: if you want to participate (in primaries or caucuses) and aren’t sure where to go, how it works, whether you’re eligible, etc., call up the campaign of the person you’re planning to go and support, and ask for information and advice. They should be very motivated to help you!

In Minnesota, you can find your caucus location using this handy online site: http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us/

Note that your caucus location is most likely not the same as the place you go to cast a ballot on election day. You will get to cast a ballot at your precinct caucus, but instead of going to a a polling place, you’re going to go to a meeting.

I’m going to split up the rest of the information across a couple of different posts, so stay tuned.

Methodology

I had a couple of people ask me this year how I do my research. I just want to note again that I’m a hobbyist, not a journalist, so I can’t call people up and say “this is Naomi Kritzer from the local paper of record, calling to ask you questions about your campaign.” (I tend to assume that real journalists get quick responses to their questions, especially when they’re softball questions like “what makes you different from your opponent?” but I may actually be totally wrong about this. I’ll tell you this: “I’m a political blogger” does not open doors. People get this nervous, guarded look, like they think you’re probably a lunatic.)

My core research tool is Google, but there are some specific techniques I use and stuff I look for.

1. Get the slate of candidates.

In Minnesota, you can get the precise slate of candidates for your precinct by visiting the MN Secretary of State’s site and putting in your zip code and address: http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/Default.aspx Once it gets to a month or so before the election you can even view a sample ballot.

The candidate list (though not the sample ballot) usually includes links to most of their websites. This is not perfect: some candidates, including one fairly high-profile one, wrote their URLs down wrong (or they got put in wrong at the elections office.) Nonetheless, the links can save time.

Getting the list is critical for the downballot races because they’re so rarely covered in voter guides.

2. Look at the websites of the candidates.

Interpreting a candidate’s website can be one of those areas where there’s no substitute for a base of local knowledge, because so often there’s subtle code. I mean, not always — sometimes, you have a nice straightforward choice between an obvious conservative and an obvious liberal and you can pick your political philosophy and be done with it. (And in fact, in a U.S. Senate or U.S. House race you should probably just decide whether you like Democrats or Republicans and stick with those candidates, because you’re not just voting for Jane Q. Minnesotan, you’re voting for her party to control that branch of government.) In local elections, though, this may be a whole lot less clear, and there are more likely to be highly contentious issues that don’t break down neatly along party lines.

“Fiscal responsibility” is something of a Republican buzzword and it can mean “I think teachers are overpaid and guidance counselors are a waste of money” but it can also mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.” “No handouts to billionaires” is a Democratic buzzword and it can mean “I think tax breaks for large employers are always a terrible idea, even when we’re offering incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed” but it can ALSO mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.”

One of the words you’ll see a lot in local elections is “transparency.” Sometimes this means, “I am totally convinced that if only we posted all our minutes on a website, people would take a sudden passionate interest in solid waste management.” Or, “We should hire someone to do VIDEO of all those solid waste management committee meetings and put THOSE on a website. Or local access cable! THE PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW. EVERY. DETAIL.” Other times it means, “I can’t actually claim that my opponent is corrupt but everyone knows he is, and I’m promising fewer no-bid contracts, back-room deals, and mutual back-scratching arrangements.” And occasionally it means, “I’m a corrupt jackass and I’m going to do that nifty political trick where I try to suggest my opponent has the exact problems that are my greatest weakness.” Again, some knowledge of the local people involved can help.

It’s always worth looking to see what they think the issues are, because that all by itself can be extremely revealing. When I’m evaluating politicians, especially at the local level, I’m a big fan of people who will commit to specifics. Everyone agrees that the achievement gap is a problem, so promising to erase the achievement gap is pretty meaningless if you’re not saying “…by doing x, y, and z.” (Of course, if people are promising totally ridiculous specifics, it’s totally fine to hold that against them.)

Endorsements pages are also often very interesting. First off, as a general rule, if someone has no endorsements, that’s a good indicator that they’re a flake. (I mean, get all your friends to endorse you. At least make it look like your trying!) Second, they may be endorsed by politicians you know you hate, even if they’re technically members of your party. (For the record, I loathed Norm Coleman back when he was a Democrat, too.) Or by people you know are nuts. You also get situations where the candidate is saying nothing particularly socially conservative anywhere on their website but has endorsements from socially conservative groups; that’s a pretty good indicator that they hold very socially conservative views, even if they’re keeping quiet about them this week.

If I’m having a really hard time sussing out what someone is like, I will sometimes go through the list of names on their endorsements page, Google the individuals, and try to figure out whether they run liberal or conservative. I mean, there’s limits, with private individuals, but often you’ll find out that they’re board members of some non-profit, or they work as lobbyists, or they’re high-level executives in some industry… this, however, can be a whole lot of work.

3. Google the candidates.

If a candidate has a very common name, or if they share a name with a celebrity, I’ll try adding the state, the city, the county, the job they’re running for, their political party if I know it, each political party in turn if I don’t, and various relevant issues.

Sometimes, I will look specifically for news stories. You can adjust the dates on Google News if you click “Search Tools” on your results page, and look for stuff that’s less recent. There are certain local sources I’ll always click on. One of my favorites is the City Pages, because their searchable archive goes way back and they’ve always liked covering scandals. Obviously I’ll click if I spot a Star Tribune link. I also like minnpost.com and tcdailyplanet.net. If I hit a really old article that looks promising but appears to only be in a paid archive (Highbeam, for instance), I make a note of where it appeared and visit my local library’s website; they have paid access to a bunch of news databases. Usually, the stuff I’m after doesn’t require archaeological skills, but every now and then I really have to dig. (It helps a lot if I have some idea of what I’m digging for.)

I look for candidates’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; sometimes I can get more information on them that way (sometimes they’re just very, very boring — serious campaigns for high-level offices always have Twitter feeds but they tend to be shockingly dull.)

If I’m really digging (especially in minor races where I haven’t been able to find much) I will look people up on LinkedIn. That can be a good way to see if this minor candidate has some qualification for the office they’re running for. Also, sometimes there’s stuff that will tip you off about their views and/or agenda.

Blogs are great. I’m always really excited when I find a blog, especially if it’s from a few years ago, before this person was thinking about running for public office, and they might actually say what they think instead of couching everything in politically palatable euphemisms.

Minneapolis has a long-standing mailing list called the Issues List which is archived online. Sometimes I can find a fantastic gossipy discussion full of invective that relates to a particular candidate. It’s fun when it’s people talking about them; it’s even MORE fun when they were a participant.

Interviews with candidates are basic but sometimes very solid. Interviews from a partisan source are more likely to be interesting. (Bonus points when the candidate forgets that Democrats AND Republicans will be able to read this interview.) Voter’s Guides, of course, if they filled them out. If they refused to fill out a Voter’s Guide that can also be revealing. (Sometimes what it reveals is, “this is not a serious candidate.”)

4. Watch video / listen to radio.

This is not my favorite research method but I will do it occasionally. It can be particularly interesting if you can dig it up from primary season. Something I realized this time is that you can make a YouTube video skip five seconds forward or backward by using your arrow keys. (You have to start it, pause it, and restart it in order to activate that feature. It’s possible it doesn’t work on all videos.) This is especially good to know if you’re trying to watch a primary-season debate during the main season because who cares what Kurt Zellers said?

Sometimes, candidates will put all their substantive ideas on videos so you have to sit through them yammering to find out what they think about anything. I hate that approach so profoundly that all by itself it’s going to be a huge strike against any candidate who does it. I have a lot of races to research and a lot of candidates to sift through, and I can read a lot faster than I can listen.

5. Ask questions.

Sometimes I want to know something about a candidate’s stance that’s not on their website, and I will e-mail them to ask for more information. I’ve had a wide range of responses to this, from prompt helpful e-mails back to “can you please call me so we can chat? here’s my number” to complete radio silence.

I get mixed results with this. Jeff Johnson (GOP candidate in the governor’s race) ignored me. Hannah Nicollet (Independence candidate in the governor’s race) asked me to call her, which I did, and we talked on the phone for a bit. Nelson Inz asked me to call him, which I ended up not doing. Jay Larson e-mailed back to ask me for a more specific question, but then did not follow up with a response to my more specific question. (I’d asked him how he differed from his opponent; he wanted to know a more specific concern so I asked him about the District 5 high school options. No reply.)

Asking me to call is fine. E-mailing back is fine. Having a campaign worker e-mail back is also fine. For someone in a local race to never respond at all is not fine and communicates a tremendous amount of arrogance, IMO. If I really want an answer I may try Twitter and the campaign Facebook page as well. (I tried that with Mark Andrews during last year’s mayoral race and he did not answer me ANYWHERE. I sort of wondered if he was avoiding me because he thought I was nobody, or if he was avoiding me because he knew who I was and did not expect a favorable writeup?)

When a candidate persistently ignores me I always wonder if they ignore reporters, too. I don’t usually lead with “I’m a blogger” — I just tell them I’m researching candidates for the upcoming election and I have a question about X, here’s my e-mail address, thank you. But, if they Google me, they’ll find my blog. And I know some of the local politicians know who I am! (I am “Minnesota sci-fi writer and astute local political commentator,” thank you, Gawker. I think I’m going to put that on my business cards.) But fundamentally, when I write to a candidate, I’m writing as a voter. And I think I deserve as much of a response as any other voter. I don’t expect a personal reply when I write to Obama or Franken or Dayton (or McFadden or Johnson, before yesterday). But I do expect a personal reply when I write to my State Legislator or my City Council Rep — not necessarily from them, but from their staff or a volunteer.

When I wrote to my City Council rep in St. Paul to grouse about the horrifying road work being done on Ford Parkway this fall and the fact that it was happening at the same time as Montreal Ave was closed, I got a fairly lengthy and apologetic e-mail back from their aide explaining why the scheduling happened the way it did. (It involved a fight for funding in one case, and a lawsuit regarding who they hired in the other, and then a desperate attempt to get everything done ASAP before winter. Annoying as hell, but it would be worse NOT to do the work, so…) When I wrote about the horrific mess that was Hamline Ave last spring, I got a similarly apologetic e-mail along with a promise that they were going to re-pave Hamline before winter. Which they did, hurray!

On a super fundamental level, that’s what accountability looks like to me: a willingness to answer my questions, to respond to me when I have a complaint. I don’t expect that to be instant; my elected officials have lives, kids, other jobs, other constituents. I don’t always expect to get what I want; all resources are limited, and (hopefully) my elected officials have a broader perspective than I do on what those short-term hassles will get us in the long run.

Anyway, if someone won’t answer my questions before they get the job, they’re certainly not likely to answer my questions after they get the job.

6. Share.

If you’re going to do this sort of work researching your local political races, your friends will appreciate it if you share, especially if they hold similar political views. I don’t know how big my readership is at this point, just that it’s way beyond my circle of personal friends because they found it useful enough to pass along.

Before I post stuff online, I try to organize my information: I want to have links to my sources. If someone dislikes my opinion, they can follow those links and form their own. My writeups tend to have a lot of snark, because that’s part of what makes this fun for me. I do, however, try to avoid committing libel. If something’s been alleged, I try to remember to say it’s an allegation. If I’m expressing an opinion, I try to make sure it’s expressed as an opinion.

I usually break do a separate post for each race, but if I have a lot to say about the candidates in some race I might break that one down by candidate because novella-length blog posts are annoying both to write and to read.

Shortly before the election I collect all my endorsements onto one page.

Local elections matter a lot. I was talking about this today with a friend on Facebook. It’s weird to me that people focus so heavily on the national elections, to the exclusion of the local races, given how much of your day-to-day quality of life is the result of stuff your state legislature and city council are doing (or not doing). You are not under any obligation to be exhaustively thorough: you can just sit down with your sample ballot and check out a few websites and ignore anyone who isn’t easy to find.

Election 2014: 4th District (Hennepin County) Court, Judge 53

I did most of the research on this one a few days ago and then let it sit because it was one of those races where I just didn’t feel like I had that much to say, and for some reason that felt a lot harder to sit down and do than the races where I pretty much can’t shut up.

This is an open seat. Judge Jane Ranum isn’t running again.

Running for this seat:

Bev Benson
Chris Ritts

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Election 2014: 4th District (Hennepin County) Court, Judge 43

One of the oddities this year in Hennepin County is that there are, in fact, three actual open seats in the judicial races. I did a cursory look at all three races and it looks like there’s one that’s a battle between two liberals; one that’s a person with a bunch of supporters vs. a person with no supporters; and one that’s clearly a liberal vs. a conservative.

This one is a liberal vs. a liberal:

PAUL SCOGGIN
BRIDGET ANN SULLIVAN

I’m going to use a cut tag now that I’ve figured out how to do that.

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Election 2014: Associate Justice – Supreme Court 3

I’m going to be honest: this is the sort of juicy, hilarious trainwreck of a race that I love blogging about. Or at least Michelle’s half of it is; David Lillehaug is thoroughly respectable and has been endorsed by loads of people on both sides. So if you’re really only reading these to get a list of who to vote for, just make sure you vote for David Lillehaug. If you’re not actually in Minnesota anyway and read these because election drama can be so entertaining, go pop yourself some popcorn because you are in for a SHOW.

MICHELLE L. MACDONALD
DAVID LILLEHAUG

(I’m going to use the “More” tag to try to cut this, because it’s long.)

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