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.

 

Minnesota Caucuses: The Basics

So let’s say you’re a Minnesota resident, and you’ve got an opinion about either the Democratic presidential candidates, or the Republican presidential candidates.

On March 1st, you can vote for your preference by attending your precinct caucus.

Location and Time

A caucus is a meeting. Caucuses can be held anywhere the party can arrange space, but for logistical reasons, schools are very popular. Often all the precincts in a ward will be held at some local school, and each precinct gets its own classroom. (I have never been to a caucus that wasn’t held at a school. Possibly because state law requires schools to allow political parties to use them for caucuses.)

You can find your caucus location using this handy online site: http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us/

I would suggest that before you go, you note down your ward and precinct number, and if the website gives you a room number within the building, note that, too.

When I went to my precinct caucus in 2008, there was a huge, huge line leading out the front door of the building, down the block, around the corner, and down the next block. The thing is, the bottleneck was being created by people consulting ward maps to figure out which precinct they were in. I knew my precinct, so we found another door, went in that way, and just made our way to our classroom. (Which also had a line! But at least it was a shorter line. And indoors.) In a regular election, if you find a line, you just get into it, because you’re in line to get a ballot, and everyone needs to go to the same place. At a caucus, once you’re in the building there will probably be at least a dozen different rooms for each individual precinct caucus. Each room has its own line for people to stand in to sign in and get a ballot. So if there’s a line outside the building, you generally will not be cheating if you find a way around it. (Mind you, it’s possible all the other doors will be locked, but in 2008 it was definitely worth trying the other doors!)

Doors will open no later than 6:30 p.m. (Many caucus conveners are planning to be there earlier.) The meetings are supposed to be called to order at 7 p.m. Balloting runs until 8 p.m. (and if you’re standing in line at 8 p.m. they’re supposed to abide by the way it works during a regular election: you’re there, so you’re present, and you get to vote.) (Edited to add: that’s true for DFLers but not Republicans! Republican balloting is done at the beginning of the meeting, so get there on time.)

Who Can Caucus?

You do not have to be a registered party member to attend a caucus, but you are supposed to be a person who generally considers themselves a Democrat (to attend the DFL caucus) or Republican (to attend the Republican caucus). When you sign in at a DFL caucus, you are affirming the following: that you live in the precinct; that you will be 18 and eligible to vote by November 8th (in order to cast a preference ballot) or that you will be 16 (in order to participate in caucus business); that you consider yourself a member of the DFL and are not an active member of another political party; that you agree with the principles of the DFL party.

You are not actually registering as a party member by signing in, exactly, but you’re affirming that you consider yourself a Democrat. It’s a somewhat fine distinction.

If you sign in to a Republican caucus, you’re affirming a similar set of things but mentally cross out “DFL” and insert “Republican.”

(For the recent transplants and the non-locals: the DFL is the local Democratic party. It stands for “Democratic Farmer Labor” and is used interchangeably with “Democrats.”)

All that said, there’s no quiz. The only scenario where someone might care is if you are very publicly a member of some other party — for instance, if you hold public office as a member of some other party. (There is actually a procedure for “challenges” but I have gone to these meetings for years and this has never come up. In theory, if someone thinks you’re not there legitimately, they can challenge you, and your precinct caucus will then vote on whether or not to let you stay. In practice, we are talking about Minnesotans. The reanimated zombie of Ronald Reagan could turn up at your precinct caucus and no one would say a word because oh god that would be confrontational.) The one thing they really don’t want anyone doing is caucusing for two parties on the same night. (Note: if you try that trick, you’ll be breaking state law. Don’t do it.)

(The caucus-finder website lists only Republican and DFL caucuses at the moment, but in fact other parties are caucusing that night as well. More info on the the Green Party caucusesLibertarian party caucuses, and I went looking for information on the Constitution Party but they don’t appear to hold caucuses.)

Note that you can totally caucus and cast a presidential preference ballot if you are 17 years old right now but will turn 18 before November 8th! And if you will be 16 by November 8th, you can “participate in caucus business,” which basically means that you can propose and vote on resolutions. (Edited to add: that’s a DFL thing, I think.)

The Presidential Preference Ballot

Assuming this works more or less like it has before, they will give you a ballot when you sign in. They’re pre-printing ballots with candidate names, but they may run out, in which case your ballot will be a piece of blank paper on which you write your candidate’s name. (All reasonable spellings will be counted. However, eight years ago, there were two very confused Republicans who came to my DFL precinct caucus and cast ballots for McCain and Romney, and that will not work. If you want your vote to count, you really need to go to the correct party’s caucus.)

If all you want to do is come, sign in, cast your ballot, and leave, you can totally do that.

Our presidential preference ballots are binding. This is true this year for both the Democrats and the Republicans. (Four years ago, it was not true for the Republicans! But it is now.) Essentially our caucus is a very inconvenient primary (because you have to come during that 90-minute period and the lines are much more of a hassle) with absolutely no absentee balloting.

The DFL has a five-minute video on what to expect at your precinct caucus, which is pretty accurate. The one thing I will note is that precinct caucuses are held every year, and they are much, much less crowded in an off-year.

Be ready for crowds this year. That means that if you’re driving to your location, expect parking hassles. If it’s a cold night, be aware that you may wind up stuck outside for a bit before you can get in.

(Edited to add: Republicans will get ballots as the first agenda item at the meeting, not when they sign in. They can vote and leave, though, if they want.)

Accommodations

If you have a disability and need accommodations to participate in your caucus — for instance, if you can’t stand in line for a long time — you have a couple of options. First, you can contact your precinct chair or the chair of your Senate District. You can find your local contacts on the DFL site. The Republican site only gives people down to the Congressional District level, but I first started trying to get answers to my questions back on New Year’s Eve, and I e-mailed Jim Carson, the GOP party chair for Congressional District 4. I heard back from him within hours. (Don’t get me started on the Democrats. Really, don’t.)

The other option is to contact the campaign of the candidate you’re planning to support and see what they can offer. You specifically want their Minnesota campaign office, because they should have local people who can help you out. Bernie’s got a very, very informative page with lots of people you can call on. Hillary’s contact information is somewhat less helpful: here.

Hillary’s less-than-optimal local organization info is better than anything I could find for any of the Republicans. Trump has a Minnesotans for Trump Twitter account. Cruz has a Facebook page. I couldn’t find anything for Kasich. “Rubio for Minnesota” got me a Wikipedia page for a Timberwolves player and here’s Google’s most helpful information on Bush for Minnesota.

(FYI, I tried a bunch of different searches and still came up dry.)

All caucuses are supposed to be held at wheelchair-accessible locations unless they literally can’t find anything within a reasonable distance of the precinct. Also, under state statutes, you have the right to an ASL interpreter if you need one, Braille materials if you need them, etc., unless they literally can’t find you an interpreter. Let them know in advance what you need.

Other Obstacles to Caucusing

You have the right to take time off work to go to your caucus, though you are required to give your employer 10 days notice.

You are allowed to bring your kids with you to the caucus. They can’t participate unless they’re old enough, but they can be in the room. How well this will work depends heavily on your kids.

If you are out of town that day, if you’re home-bound, if you’re sick … you are S.O.L. There are no absentee ballots for the caucus.

I totally agree that this sucks. I think this is a stupid way to pick a presidential candidate, and we should switch to a primary system. My recollection from the last time this got proposed is that the state doesn’t want to switch because they’d have to pay for a whole extra election in March every four years and that’s a lot of money. Under the caucus system, the parties bear the cost.

Oh yeah, that reminds me!

They will totally hit you up for a donation at your caucus. There’s usually a can that gets passed around and they may even suggest a sum.

This donation is entirely optional. You do not have to contribute. It’s nice if you can: there are costs for holding the event that your party has to bear. But you have the legal right to participate without digging out your wallet.

 

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.