This was my first caucus. It may be my last.
In California we held primaries and I recall always thinking how patriotically engaging it must be to actively participate in the democratic process like some states do. I was raised by a mother who would be glued to TV senate committee hearings on public access stations, being able to tell you the actual number of each bill and recite how each senator voted. So naturally, when it came to caucusing, I envisioned citizens gathering to debate and discuss candidates and issues, taking part in their own governance, standing tall and making our founding fathers proud.
When I asked my new Minnesota friends what to expect at my first caucus, I not only received confusing and unenthusiastic answers, but more often then not, my query was met with a sort of shuffling silence. Puzzling. And most of the answers were in the realm of, “Well, it depends. It’s always different.” And asked to elucidate, they shuffled some more and usually changed the subject.
The month prior I had discovered that a meeting I was slated to attend on caucus night would conflict and I raised my hand and suggested that obviously we would need to re-schedule so it wouldn’t interfere. Silence and blank stares. “Who’s going to caucus?” I asked with naïve enthusiasm, raising my hand to indicate I was a good Minnesotan now and on-board. Silence. “Isn’t anyone going to the caucus?” I stammered to the some 60 people in the room.
The actual experience when I arrived at caucus night was even more puzzling and alarming – a deafening, chaotic mass of citizens who didn’t know their ward numbers, struggled to find someone in charge, pushing through hordes of other confused souls, struggling over pen-splotched maps of the city, crowding around tables in a disordered hall of pandemonium. And finally, someone who yelled over the din and pointed in one direction and we pushed through and somehow were given a little slip of paper on which to check-off our candidate of choice and write down our contact information.
We lingered for a time and eventually, I think, someone roared out “welcomings” and platitudes from a microphone and I’m told that later there might have been voting for party workers and even perhaps some resolutions, but by then we were home badly needing a libation.
I don’t know if I was gratified, mollified or shocked to see the official editorial, op-ed pieces and letters to the editor the next day in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It certainly justified my consternation.
“Minnesota’s current caucus system is no way to elect a president.”
“ –they aren’t party building exercises. They’re highly inconvenient elections.”
“ To be blunt: Chaos reigned.”
“ – a vague sense of failure. Not my first. Perhaps my last.”
And my favorite – “This is what I call the illusion of democracy.”
The editor of the Star-Trib explained that “Minnesota used a presidential primary for most of the first half of the 20th century, but it fell out of favor with leaders of both parties in the 1950’s and was abandoned in favor of caucuses. From the start, caucuses have been dogged by complaints that they are confusing, insider-dominated affairs that are insufficiently democratic. Requiring citizens to appear at a neighborhood gathering spot between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in order to cast a ballot leaves too many people unable to attend. By comparison, polling places at a primary election would open at 7 a.m., not 7 p.m., and absentee voting would be available.” And furthermore – “A state that prides itself on well-run elections and a high level of civic participation can do much better.”
The next day the governor concurred and made the suggestion that Minnesota return to a primary system. (Of course he has been advocating for clean water buffer zones too, and we know how far that has gone!)
I, for one, stand with the governor on both accounts. But while I’m on the subject of California versus Minnesota politics, I might as well go out on a limb and vent about the other issue that has confounded me since we moved here over 5 years ago. And this with the caveat that soooo much about our new state wins highest rating and gold stars. Minnesota courtesy and kindness, for instance. The breathless expanse of prairie and sky. The wealth of artistry and creative talent. Not to mention that we have the best and biggest bunch of friends of anywhere we have ever lived.
But really, folks (and my new friends have heard my rant) – however are you able to vote responsibly without a prior-to-the-election sample ballot? In my home state it came in the mail weeks before, a many page brochure, printed with a list of candidates (from politician and judge down to school board and dog-catcher) and propositions, all with bios and/or background followed by pro and con endorsements (and why) from prominent organizations. Sometimes followed by pros to the cons.
I always went to the polls with my dog-eared, much perused, note scribbled sample ballot in hand. And voted, only after doing my homework. But for my first election in Minnesota a few years ago, I arrived and discovered that there were propositions and lesser elect-tees that I didn’t even know existed. When I sputtered and queried friends, they said I might have found some information in the local newspapers. Or if I had gone to the party headquarters. Or?
Is this a case of Minnesota Nice, then? Not wanting to be too pushy? Let me work it out on my own? Don’t sit in the first rows at church because it might seem like I think I’m special? Not to suggest that my home state has all the answers, does elections proud, and doesn’t have room for improvement. But on these two issues – primaries over caucusing, and substantial pre-voting information – California offers a stellar guideline.
So I say, let’s all be special and be informed. Let’s help the national election results by making it easier for more voters to be counted and therefore influence the final choice of our national candidate. Let’s bring back the Primary! And please – give us a sample ballot! Make my Mom proud of HER home state.