Lawmakers debate if Minn. should move to a primary system

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

More than 250,000 voters overwhelmed last Tuesday's Democratic and Republican precinct caucuses.

Aside from the human and automobile traffic, there was widespread reports of confusion and disorganization. Some voters reported casting ballots on post-it notes, because there were not enough ballots or people to accept them.

DFL State Senator Dan Larson says his bill would prevent this from happening in the future.

Long lines
Long lines formed at the Rondo Educational Center in St. Paul as DFL caucus goers lined up to cast their vote.
MPR Photos/Tom Crann

"Given the fact that we had such overwhelming turnout, and so many people were disenfranchised or found it difficult to vote within the system because of traffic or because of accessibility or because they had to work during that one and a half hour period, I think that outweighs the desire to want to walk in and sub-caucus for president," said Larson.

Larson's proposal would not eliminate caucusing all together. Under the bill, voters would still be able to caucus for state and local candidates.

But the bill would require a primary election for presidential races.

He said there would be plenty of opportunity for party activists to continue to caucus, but changing the system will help those unable to make it to caucuses by holding primary voting over the whole day.

Roseville resident Mary Jean Turinia Anderson said she was impressed and inspired by last Tuesday's huge turnout. Nonetheless, it took a lot of effort for her to cast her vote.

"I was able to navigate my way across a freeway three or four blocks to the building. I waited outside for probably 20 minutes in below zero windchill temperatures, got in, went up three flights of stairs after locating the room where my precinct caucus occurred," said Turinia.

Even though she was able to vote, she supports changing the system to allow people, like her 93-year-old mother, who are physically unable to make it to the caucuses to participate in elections.

"I would support a presidential primary, absolutely, if for no other reason than that it would give a person an opportunity, hopefully, to cast an absentee ballot," Turinia explained.

The current caucus system does not allow for absentee ballots.

Still, not everyone at the hearing was convinced a change is necessary. Republican Senator Claire Robling from Jordan said Minnesota's caucuses are a true community event and should be preserved.

"I still like the idea of getting the neighborhood together and seeing actual faces. Human contact is really important to me, and I get really energized when I can get out and get to visit and talk to other people and I think a lot of people appreciate having that human contact," said Robling.

Robling said the state should set up multiple caucus sites to accommodate everyone who shows up.

Turnout last week was nearly four times as high as it was during the last presidential election. The Minnesota Secretary of State estimated that one in ten eligible voters participated. Many say the record turnout was a major reason for chaos at caucus sites.

However, University of Minnesota political science Professor Larry Jacobs said turnout like that is not likely to happen again in the near future. Voters came out in record numbers because the races in each party were wide open, and they felt their vote really mattered. Besides, he said the caucus system gives voters a chance to debate issues and candidates in a way a primary system doesn't allow.

"When you go into a ballot box you basically have a binary choice, in some cases more than two, but it's a pretty set piece," explained Jacobs. "You vote for this person, that person, it's over in a few minutes, whereas the caucus really allows a quite extraordinary exchange of ideas, policy suggestions, the choice of candidates can often be fluid as people move back and forth as they are persuaded."

But Senator Dan Larson says Minnesota's caucus system is outdated and can no longer handle large numbers of people.

"We can't predict what the future turnout will be. In 2004 we had turnout that blew us all away, how many people came out and in 2008 we quadrupled that. What's to say that four years from now in 2012 we wont have an even larger turnout, we cant predict that," said Larson.

Larson's proposal to establish a primary election for presidential races is still being debated. A similar bill was defeated over cost concerns in past years. Larson says his bill includes provisions that would actually save the state money.