Caucusing in the DFL Is a Good Thing

In 2008, the caucuses for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota were a steaming mess.  People showed up and didn’t know where to go. There were not enough volunteers to help people find their way to the right rooms.  There was confusion among the volunteers as to what they themselves were supposed to do.  There were people standing in line just to get checked in.  There was general commotion that couldn’t be resolved easily.

A major factor in this was the leap in attendance from the prior years.  The presidential election was the reason that most people showed up that night.  The Democrats’ front-runners had narrowed to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by that time, and this was the first time in many years that the straw poll at the caucuses was likely to have an influence on how many delegates each candidate would be able to take with them to the National Convention in Denver in August of 2008.

Minnesota doesn’t hold a spring presidential primary, as other states do.  Minnesota’s primary election is in the fall, usually forty-five days before the election, and so it wouldn’t make sense to decide on the ballot for president that late. In place of the presidential primaries, Minnesota uses a “straw poll” from the votes of caucus attendees, and it is not as formal as an official election.  The person who chooses to vote simply fills out a small ballot, and the results are counted and the ballots destroyed.  The results are then called in to the party headquarters, and from that vote, the number of delegates assigned for each candidate to the national convention are determined.  It’s that simple; now, go caucus! Right?

It isn’t that simple, because not many people understand what caucuses do and why Minnesotans are so lucky to have the opportunity to join them.  Caucuses are the way to get in to a party.  It is a populist process, and not all invented by Democrats.  The other parties caucus, as well.  Grace Kelly has a great guide to caucusing at MNBlue:

I found that many people need to feel comfortable to go to the precinct caucuses. So here is a quick guide based on my experience to having fun and being political effective, first time out.

The Process in Steps:

1) Key Action: Go to your caucus! Each party has a caucus, so at least for just this night, you have to pick just one party. Find out where your caucus is by entering your address and picking a party at Secretary of State website or call 651-215-1440. If you choose to go the DFL caucus, the DFL lookup will give you both location and contact people. Mark it on the calendar Feb 2, show up on 6:45 or earlier if possible.

2) If you are early enough, then go find a candidate. Key Action: ask a critical question, or present a critical fact to a candidate.

3) Check what precinct you are in and go to the appropriate room – usually a whole group of precincts meet in one building.

4) Sign in when you walk in. Vote on any paper ballot issues. In the DFL party, at the precinct you do not have to sign the back of a paper ballot. Read literature available. Find the resolution paperwork, and fill one sheet out for each resolution that you plan to propose (don’t try for more than three). Your already written resolutions can just be attached to the resolution form, like this DFL resolution form.

5) Usually the meeting will be started by a “convener”, a person who volunteered to start the meeting. Usually one of the first considerations is to consider whether the convener or another person should run the meeting. People usually approve of the original convener unless that person is known to be unfair. The person running the meeting is then called the chair. Sorry, no one gets to be the “table”.

6) Then rules and agenda is considered. In listening to rules, the important points are a) what percentage is needed for approval b) how many speakers and how long each side gets to speak c) does anything need to be in writing. Changing the rules here only takes a majority vote, a change later takes a 2/3 vote. Changes must also be consistent with party rules.

7) Elected offices and volunteer positions are filled. Raise your hand if you wish to volunteer, here is where you can have a huge impact.

8) Meeting pauses occasionally so candidates and elected officials can give brief speeches.

9) The chair announces the next convention, date and time and asks who would like to be a delegate. Key Action: Raise your hand and sign the sheet as it comes around. If you cannot be a delegate, be an alternate. Alternates become actual delegates when delegates don’t show up, which is very common. Note alternate order matters, so sign up quickly and then you will be assured of being seated as a delegate. Alternates, even when not seated, can actively participate in many ways.

10) The chair announces consideration of resolutions, and asks if anyone has a resolution. Key Action: Raise your hand. When recognized, read your resolution. Then give the first speech, you can read it right off of a sheet if you are nervous. Every consideration and every discussion of good resolutions helps move people toward political action, even though you don’t always win approval!

11) Go home, mark the next convention on your calendar. Come prepared with literature, snacks, drinks and sudoku/crossword puzzles.

People get the impression from the news that the precinct caucuses are just a chance to put in a vote for your presidential candidate, say hello to your neighbors and go home and hope that the Big Chiefs at Party Headquarters pay attention to your vote.  The big turnout and the confusion in 2008 certainly left that impression. There was a call from many quarters to dismiss the precinct caucus system, and move to a straight primary system in Minnesota.  Please, no!

Here’s why I, as a party activist, love that we can still caucus in Minnesota.  I learned on that first night of my first caucus an important lesson about getting involved in my party of choice as a volunteer: Politicians will lend an ear to the volunteers in their party.  They need us to support them, but within structures that can help them.  It is a give-and-take that helps to ameliorate the larger financial donations that people throw at campaigns.

I have had the ear of people who would otherwise never have talked to me other than to say, “I share your concern, and I appreciate your vote in the election.”  From my first caucus, I went to the Senate District DFL convention, and from there to the Congressional District DFL Convention and Ramsey County Convention.  At each level I found new opportunities to volunteer and actually work to enact platform resolutions. I have been able to make a difference in several decisions made for the party in several small, but important, areas.

I started at the caucuses because I wanted to vote for John Kerry in a straw poll, even though he had already secured the nomination.  I then found out what else people do a the caucuses.  We tell the party what we want our elected officials to do.  We select delegates for the convention at the next level. We meet candidates, and ask them questions about why they should be our nominee.  We channel our angst and feel like we are contributing rather than complaining.

I am never more irritated than when I hear people complain about how the caucuses are taken over by the “activists” who don’t reflect the wishes of the majority of the party.  I tell them, “Well, you know there is a way to actually try to influence that swing if you want to do so.  Get active yourself.”  I am not an unusually smart person, a political genius, a mover or a shaker by nature.  I am just a person who at age 44 decided that I was not satisfied with complaining about the way that the party was not working for me.  I realized that in order for the party to work for me, I needed to work for it.

I have been at meetings this November and December to plan the caucuses for the 2010 election.   Watch for announcements, because if you have not been involved in the past at caucuses, this is your in.  This is your time to start focusing your activity and shaping the party that you belong to.  Enter resolutions, discuss them, vote on them, volunteer.  Get excited about getting active.  Meet people who share at least some of your goals.  Be cynical but friendly.  But also be aware that this year the caucuses will be ready for you.  Things will be organized.  People will know what they are doing and, if you have questions, will be able to answer them.

You may find yourself elected a delegate to the next level convention, and from there to the DFL state convention.  Be passionate for your issues, and make sure that people know why you are there, and listen to why they are there.

Just remember this:  I was a lost outsider when I showed up at my first precinct caucus.  I knew nobody who was there.  I voted on resolutions.  I got to know people and some of them have become very good friends.  I can now go to the State Capitol during session and our elected officials know me by name.  And I am not a paid lobbyist.  It’s not magic, it’s just getting involved.

Caucusing in the DFL is a good thing.  Take advantage of it.

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