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Presidential primary is not a done deal

by Eric Ferguson on March 19, 2016 · 4 comments

When state DFL chair Ken Martin endorsed a “hybrid” primary, that made me happy because I’ve been wanting that ever since I helped with sign-in at my precinct’s caucus in 2008. I had no training or experience in running an election, and we made up procedures as we went because there was nothing else we could do. It was one of those deep blue urban precincts with the massive turnout, but the problems we ran into were pretty much the same as everywhere. Clearly, running a primary on a precinct caucus infrastructure was a lousy idea, and surely we would never try that again. We did try it again, as did several other states.
We had the same problems as 2008, and so did the other states that tried running a binding presidential ballot at a caucus: massive lines, harried volunteers with little if any training or experience, improvised procedures, and angry voters who had no idea what a “precinct caucus” does and left frustrated at the most screwed up polling places they’d ever seen. Except these aren’t polling places. People think there are staff running elections, but it’s all-volunteer, from the conveners and the people they recruit to help right through to the local party chairs.
The problem is essentially that the binding ballot brings out masses of people, with my seante district getting several times normal caucus turnout, so we’re taking the people who would vote over the whole day of a primary and trying to shove them through more or less all at once. Whereas election judges have time to set up before opening, we had lines of people even before the facilities were unlocked. Many conveners had literally no time to set up, and then they had to run a caucus simultaneously with running a polling place. This is literally the worst way to hold an election; thus my support — even before trying to make the unworkable work in my role as a local chair — for moving the presidential ballot to a separate primary. Let the primary determine the allocation of the state’s national delegates, while the caucuses do everything else. I wrote about what “everything else” means in my pre-caucus post urging attendees to stay and participate, but it’s no accident that the things I said caucuses work well for did not include binding ballots. What did concern me was that the many people coming to their first precinct caucus would leave alienated by a bad experience, and that volunteers would feel burned out and not come back. Those are the same people who knock on doors, make phone calls, and come early to run events. Given how much of a chair’s job is asking people to volunteer for something, losing part of the volunteer pool is scary.
Frankly, the presidential ballot is a mess even if everything goes perfectly, and it never does with caucuses, a point I really want to hammer home with anyone who still thinks we did things the right way. There are always conveners who are late because of a personal emergency, facilities that don’t unlock their doors on time and/or forget to tell the staff, volunteers that forget to show up, “help” from people who have no idea what’s going on but think sure they do, organizations that put out misinformation which causes problems for local parties, and I can tell you that in my district, all those things happened. That’s expected, and we cope with normal turnout and no primary to run. With several times normal turnout and a primary to run, good luck.

That makes it good news that a member of the majority party in each house of the legislature has offered a bill to have a presidential primary, and that the state chair has endorsed moving the presidential ballot to a primary. The MNGOP chair hasn’t said no, and the Gov. Mark Dayton is supportive. So why do I say the primary is not a done deal yet?

There have been efforts to have a primary before, and they get bogged down because just like caucuses, there are multiple ways of doing them. Follow primary elections where the media dig into the nuts and bolts of how each state and territory does things, and it becomes clear we have 57 separate election systems. So the bills in each house might come out with very different primaries, and they might be irreconcilable. Even if they’re the same or close enough, they might get stopped over disagreements on some aspect of the bill. For a hypothetical example, I would strongly prefer a closed primary because I despise cross-over voting. Mucking around in the other party’s primary is unethical, so I refuse to vote in Republican primaries no matter how uncompetitive the Democratic primary is. It seem that someone who can’t support a party so much as to even check a party box on a voter registration form shouldn’t get a say in who that party picks for candidates. I wouldn’t kill the primary I say I want so much just because I don’t get that, but it’s conceivable someone else would; or the bill could set up a closed primary, and supporters of open primaries kill the bill. Or maybe someone will insist on killing off election day registration as the cost of allowing a primary, or try to move Minnesota’s August primary into February or March. Some states do that, and I’m always wondering just who is paying attention to downballot elections in February besides real hardcores like me?
As Jude mentioned in his comment on Greg Laden’s post on reforming caucuses, the state would have to pick up the cost of running a primary. That’s a real selling point to me, after paying caucus costs out of our thin senate district party treasury (I’m hoping donations cover the costs once all the bills come in, but we had to bear the costs regardless). On the other hand, some states have presidential ballots at caucuses so the state can push the costs onto the parties. I can easily imagine someone proclaiming themselves a fiscal conservative by refusing to hold a primary because it might cost the state a few million. And then they push for hundreds of millions in tax cuts for wealthy people in this sadly plausible scenario. Go on, look at how the MNGOP legislators are blocking unemployment insurance extensions on the Iron Range and tell me I’m wrong.
So I urge DFL legislators, strike while the iron is hot and the feeling is bipartisan in the legislature. The MNGOP state chair hasn’t taken a position. Even though Republicans had record turnout and the same problems we had, they still had just over half as many people as the DFL. Two years ago, despite having a nomination contest for governor and senator, while the DFL had a contest only for secretary of state (not even a contest for congressional nominations if memory serves), the DFL had slightly higher caucus turnout. What’s to stop Republicans saying, “the balloting sucked, we left our supporters ticked off at us, but the DFL has double the problem, so let’s keep doing it!”?
I don’t want to pretend the caucuses were lousy for everybody. I happened to be in a position where every problem or complaint was sent my way, and taking the heat for decisions you opposed can definitely give a person a jaundiced view (ask House DFLers how they felt about the new Senate office building). The day after the caucuses, the host of AM950’s The Daily Report, Ian Levitt, talked about what a great experience he had at his first caucus and a string of callers then said the same thing (another bit of disclosure: AM950 advertises here on MN Progressive Project, which you probably guessed from the big banner at the top, but just so I’m being honest about biases). That’s the goal. I like hearing that. I want people to leave the caucuses thinking they had a good experience, and maybe want to be elected precinct chair next time and they plan to volunteer for the upcoming campaign. I’m certainly not going to tell Ian and his callers no, you’re wrong, you actually had a bad experience and just don’t know it. I will however tell them that getting a bunch more people in the door doesn’t help if they leave feeling alienated, and that happened. FWIW, I have a pet theory that the falloff in caucus attendance in 2010 was caused by disgust from 2008.
I’m not stuck on a primary. It’s my preference, but what I’m stuck on is not having a binding ballot on top of a caucus. If some legislative conflict stops the primary, there are better ways to handle balloting at caucuses. Pretty much anything is better. Greg had some ideas in the aforementioned post. I can rattle off some alternatives too, albeit these are rattled without regard to whatever state laws and national party rules might restrict options, and to what extra costs we might incur. We could make the ballot a straw poll; we could have it at a set time; we could have it be on a different day; we could open voting several hours before convening instead the half hour we tried this year and 2008; we could cut off voting when the caucus starts; we could skip the ballot altogether; we could go to some sort of vote by mail.
The key thing is that we don’t lose what makes caucuses an effective party building tool, and the binding ballot during caucuses does that. People who are ticked off and leave, or even people who are happy but just vote and leave, don’t meet their neighbors. They don’t get to discuss issues (the state party platform is built from resolutions passed at the precinct level). They don’t find out how local party offices get filled let alone fill them. They don’t get a sense of being part of a local party, or the sense that these are the same people they’ll be seeing if they show up at the phone bank. Caucuses that don’t give people that face to face connection are failing in one of the major reasons we have caucuses. We build a strong party first and foremost at a local level. That’s why I want a presidential primary; not to replace the caucuses, but to save them.
From Mac Hall: As an independent voter, I view the caucuses as you stated “a party building tool” and the election (primary) as selection of candidates.
Can the two be aligned ?
A relative from out-of-state said that she heard that Sanders won the Minnesota primary … and I had to explain that it was a caucus, not a primary … and his “victory” was inconsequential. After all, if you went to a caucus in the Second District, they were allocated six delegates — so even though Sanders won 58% of the vote, he got three delegates and Clinton got three also. Then I explained that the primary would be in August 9th … which shocked her since she knew the Convention was in July.
Thus, I have to ask, if they are going to create a taxpayer-funded full-day primary election, will the other contests be included or just the Presidential contest ?
IMO, voter participation in primaries is low because many contests are predetermined by the caucus system producing little public awareness of the candidates. Case-in-point, in the last primary, I overheard a group of women discussing the primary stating that they went only because of the Otto-Entenza contest and then were surprised to see so many names competing for the Secretary of State slot … Simon, won, but it was close … I suspect because some people just randomly picked a “right-sounding name”.
And where there are challengers to the endorsed candidates, how many times are they rebuked ?
Last week, Ohio and Illinois held primaries and determined who the candidates will be in November … but Florida will hold another primary in late August for congressional contests (heh, maybe Rubio could run and actually win it).
IF Minnesota is gonna make a change (with the government employees in charge), we should only do this once … I say pick a date in May and vote once — yeah, the Presidential contest will already be decided then in most years, but aren’t we really selecting for who will represent us in the Washington and the St. Paul ?
Just my two cents.
From Jude: It isn’t really going to happen.
Just too many entrenched and conflicting goals.
We want a caucus because they are party building tools and quite frankly we actually want the party to express its strong preference for candidates long before a primary.
We want to have Minnesota’s preference for president have some influence.
We do not want to extend the campaign season any longer then required.
So what we have now sort of works, except for every fourth year and normally that is only really for one party except every eighth year.
I do not see us paying for two primaries every fourth year.
So can we make the “Fire House” primary work?
I think we can but the only way is to extend the access time. Can the parties agree to combine their efforts and have an extended ballot location staffed the weekend before? Can the parties also, since this is THE major point of party building, fund raise for four years to adequately finance it?
I see no major impediments to making the existing system work very much better.
From Eric Ferguson: There’s a huge impediment to making it work better, namely that it’s all-volunteer. We do this when we get done with work and pickup the kids and whatever else we have going on. Having the balloting be all day would be much better for voting, but who is going to staff it? We might make it work to open voting several hours before convening time and cutting off voting when the caucus convenes, but there’s no way to do that on a weekday. The volunteers simply aren’t available. I’d rather deal with those problems than the problems we have now, but we’re still talking about a less-bad experience instead of a good one.
I’m not worried that other states don’t understand our system, because we don’t understand theirs either. Every state does things its own way, though the experience with running binding balloting during a caucus has been universally bad. Pretty much anything that stops us trying to run a polling place while running a caucus is going to be better, whatever problems it has. But we have to think about how things work on the ground. Maybe anyone who wants to keep balloting at a caucus should be required to run a caucus in a large precinct first.
From Dog Gone: Hello?
As an election judge let me point out that we already HAVE a primary election; it is in August. I can verify it exists; I work at them every time we have one; I can also testify how very few people from either party show up to vote in them (fewer than appear to attend any caucus I’ve been at so far). Rarely have I heard any person that I’ve encountered talk about those primaries, and the news coverage, relative to the general election AND to the caucuses seems astonishingly light.
So, on the one hand, under no circumstances should tax payer money (in my humble opinion) be used for a caucus or the selection of private political party activity. After all, not only are delegates selected presumably to reflect candidate selection, but also to approve party policy planks of the platform.
In my experience, approval (and rejection) of party planks done about a 3rd of the time, with the party platform, BUT when that took place, the time allowed was ignored, and took a couple of hours to complete. I don’t know if it is FACTUAL that a caucus should only take place in an hour, but we should just be honest that the business of a party takes a lot longer. Ideally such an event should take place over the time frame of a DAY, or at the very least a half-day, not an hour or an evening, BUT NOT ON THE TAX PAYER nickel.
THAT would entail both of the major parties and any minor parties to spend more $$$. And then the state conventions should take place much closer in time to the caucus rather than the national convention.
If I may point out for example, that while one of the MN GOP caucuses selected Santorum, the convention selected Ron Paul, and that had no correlation whatsoever in the actual presidential and vice presidential candidates that election cycle, right her in St Paul, John McCain and the silly Sarah Palin. That year the separate Ron Paul event served to underline how dysfunctional the GOP convention turned out to be in terms of reflecting the will of Minnesota voters.
Perhaps more than anything else however, our citizens need better to understand our process, such as it is, with both caucus and primary, neither of which works the way most people seem to understand it, or participate in it knowledgeably.
The names on the primary ballots appear, so far as I can tell from having attended caucuses, to have little or no relationship to the caucuses held in March, which are required by law to last one hour and to be on a specific date, OTHER than to select delegates to the conventions, which in turn produce the primary ballot selections. Those delegates are NOT required to reflect the results of the caucus, although it is encouraged. More to the point, once the first vote has been taken, delegates are released from any caucus representation.
I’d love to see caucus, resulting in platform selection AND state convention delegate selection, all take place within the same month as our state conventions, with the selected delegates to the national convention then being bound to reflect the will fo those voters who bother to turn out….all preferably much closer in time to that national convention. Better yet, I’d like to see Minnesota break with how any of that is handled, and replace it instead with an online voting system through either the respective political parties, or the Sec State, with an up or down vote on platform planks, and ranked voting for all potential candidates.
It is not as if our caucuses have diddly squat significance by occurring early in the year. It is time we stop pretending that it makes any difference, and it is foolish given our potentially bad weather during that part of the year which can make participation far more challenging than it would be in spring or summer.

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