Caucus goers turn out in record numbers

Precinct Finder
A throng of people crowded the hallways of Ramsey Junior High in St. Paul on caucus night. When many couldn't find their precinct room, volunteers donned homemade hats to help out.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Dann Dobson was one of two volunteers staffing the back door of Ramsey Junior High School in St. Paul, host to 14 DFL precinct caucuses.

At a little after 7 p.m. the corridors were packed and the line stretched out the door, down the steps and a block down Summit Ave.

Ballot box
It only took 10 minutes for all of the chairs at the Augsburg College caucus site to disappear. Participants, like Gail Dodd, had to kneel to fill our her presidential preference ballot.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Dobson was doing his best to pass out maps to help voters figure out which room in the school corresponded with their address.

"It's an insane night, what can I say? We printed out 1,500 of these are they're already gone. We're recycling them," Dobson said.

Not far away, the 14 GOP precincts that met at Expo Elementary also saw record turnout. With about 500 people, it wasn't quite the mob scene DFLers saw at Ramsey, but 92-year-old Betty Runyon was still flabberghasted.

Trying to hear
Ward 4, precinct 9 captain Jill Sandeen cups her hands behind her ears in an attempt to hear above the din of the classroom noise in the hallway of a crowded Ramsey Junior High School in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

"I said to my husband, I didn't know there were that many Republicans in Highland Park, because we've lived here for 50 years and this is the most people I've ever seen," Runyon said.

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The relatively warm weather Tuesday night may have boosted turnout. But Minneosta GOP spokesman Mark Drake said the big reason for blowout crowds is clear -- with both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations up for grabs, Minnesota's presidential preference poll meant something this year.

"It's just a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. I think the decision to move the caucus up was a very wise decision by both political parties here," explained Drake.

Lake Harriet lines
Large crowds line up at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Minnesota was one of 24 states to hold their voting on Feb. 5 this year, a day nicknamed Super Tuesday. That's the earliest day most states were allowed to vote.

Four years ago Minnesota was one of 10 states to vote on Super Tuesday, which was in March that year instead of February. In 2004, Republicans had an incumbent and their race was uncontested. And on the Democratic side, John Kerry was clearly leading his only remaining rival, John Edwards.

That is in sharp contrast to the neck-and-neck race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama leading up to Super Tuesday this year.

Line at the University of Minnesota
At the University of Minnesota, hundreds of students were lined up before caucuses opened at 6:30 p.m.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Mark Johnson, the site manager for 17 DFL precincts that met at St. Louis Park High School, said the DFL party clearly underestimated the size of the turnout.

"We were told to prepare initially for what we had in 2004, which was -- we registered I think about 1,400 people, and then we were told to double that, just to be safe. So we printed up enough ballots to do 3,000 at our site here, and we ran out of ballots a long time ago," Johnson said.

Naheeda Mirji-Halji said the caucus organizers at Brooklyn Center High School resorted to handing out Post-It notes for presidential polling at the DFL caucuses there.

Counting the votes
Two volunteers count the tally from the GOP caucus at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"I was handed two ballots accidentally, so I could have voted twice if I'd wanted to," Miji-Halji said.

Mirji-Halji was a little alarmed at all the chaos -- long lines, people confused about where to go, and no one even asked her to prove she was eligible to vote.

"I heard a lot of people thinking, 'Is my ballot going to be counted? I'm writing it on a yellow Post-It,'" Mirji-Halji said.

Paul Slattery of St. Paul found the throngs of DFLers invigorating.

DFL caucus goers
DFL precinct caucus-goers packed the rooms of Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

"When we pulled up and we saw the line stretched around the block, we thought, this is going to be a fantastic election," said Slattery.

But Slattery also saw the downside of caucuses, which as they currently exist for the Minnesota DFL and Republican parties, require voters to show up in a 90-minute window of time on a weeknight.

"I would consider a primary, definitely I'd consider a primary," said Slattery.

DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez isn't calling for a move to the primary just yet. However, he is worried that some people might have gotten frustrated waiting in line or trying to find parking, and just given up.

"I think we might have reached the capacity of the caucus system. Because we are as prepared as we can be, but there are only so many bodies you can fit into a classroom, and so many cars you can fit in a parking lot, and we may have reached that point," Melendez said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Richie said he's talking with Minnesota's political party leaders to figure out ways to streamline voting. But he said it's up to the parties to figure out the best way to choose delegates to their conventions.