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 caucuses, Libertarian 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.)
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.