Precinct caucuses are a fairy tale


On Super Tuesday, as I cast my vote on a scrap of paper, a woman pushed by with a camera. “Coffee cans and shoeboxes,” she said, smirking at the ballot boxes. “I’m taking photos for my mom in Chicago. She won’t believe me.”

Minnesota never takes kindly to being laughed at. We are progressive. We are not bumpkins. But hint that our caucus might be arcane, elitist, disenfranchising to voters, and people speak passionately about “community-building” and “democracy.”

DFL State Sen. Dan Larson just proposed a bill that would change that system to a combination primary/caucus. After my experience this year, I think it’s worthy of debate.

I spent days trying to find a sub for my ESL classes for caucus night. I went through my call list over and over. I felt like Cinderella. I couldn’t go to the ball. All that rhetoric from Hillary about voter disenfranchisement for women and the working class that I’d pooh-poohed as sore loser tactics. Here it was. Finally, my fairy godmother of a boss made it possible for me to attend. “You’ve got to go and vote.”

The caucus? Fun, but not the best ball. An angry man almost took off my side mirror as we battled for parking. “I’ve never had to stand outside for a caucus before,” a woman complained, out in the snow.

Inside, after we slowly shuffled past the school lockers, harried escorts appeared. They formed a line for certain addresses. Then one for R-Z names. Then people with kids. Then new caucus-goers. The lines snaked in and out of each other, like an elaborate dance where no one knew the steps.

In the cafeteria, those at the tables geared up for caucus work glared at us presidential preference slouches clogging up the aisles and making so much noise. I eventually passed empty cookie trays and snagged the last dribble of coffee. I said a hurried “hi” to a friend, but no time for conversation like we have at the coffee shop. I was in the front by now, but could anyone else hear the man at the microphone electing himself head of the caucus? Where was all the elusive “community-building” happening? Is any caucus business really getting done? Did anyone even notice my gown?

My caucus seemed Minnesota Nice. Chaotic, confusing, and inefficient, but no fistfights. I’ve read reports on blogs about people from both camps-mostly young men-shouting down and intimidating supporters into changing their votes. But I got out before things got too rowdy.

I do understand the arguments for the current system. A primary makes it easier for people to skip on issues discussions. This year’s turnout might be an aberration.

But moving up the caucus date up so people can have a say in the presidential run will inevitably encourage more participation. (Which is good, right?) Most people want to cast their vote for president and be on their merry way, leaving the hard work to caucus diehards.

Mostly important, a 90-minute time slot in the evening makes it extremely difficult for people with multiple jobs, caregivers, nurses, waitresses, teachers, retail workers, and single moms. I barely made it. “Maybe next time, they will make this easier for all of us,” my boss said tiredly.

A system that assumes everyone works 9 to 5 discourages participation. A system where voters are shouted into submission by others does not reflect accurate views. Calling a system like this “democratic” is nothing other than a fairy tale.

Polka fan Liz Rolfsmeier lives and works in Minneapolis.