Long lines and makeshift ballots: Democracy in action with a caucus rookie

A woman held up her ballot for a candidate.
Caucuses were full across the state Tuesday, as voters across parties declared who they'd like to see on the November ballots. A woman holds up her ballot at the GOP caucus at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minn.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Tuesday was my first time at a caucus. I was not alone.

First-timers were out in force at the GOP meetings at Minneapolis' Thomas Edison High School. It wasn't just young voters showing up as soon as they were eligible; people in their 60s and 70s broke lifelong streaks of not caucusing to turn out.

There was a man in a Make America Great Again hat. There was a man in a red and black Santa hat. There were two little girls, no older than 6, carrying Marco Rubio signs bigger than they were.

Most new caucus-goers had one reason for being there: Donald Trump. They were there for him — or there to fight him.

Trump is "the only candidate who will stand up for American interests over corporate and globalist interests," the man in the Make America Great Again hat told me.

"Cruz or Rubio," said another. "I'll vote for whoever's got a chance of beating Trump."

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The crowd far exceeded the organizers' expectations — and capacity. Only four harried volunteers were on hand to shepherd the more than 200 attendees. It was the biggest turnout lead volunteer Mark Fox had heard of. But it was also his first time leading the event.

The registration line stretched out the school's front doors, down the steps, around the corner and into northeast Minneapolis long past the caucus' scheduled 7 p.m. start time. For many people, waiting in the cold for more than half an hour was a chilly introduction to Minnesota's caucus tradition.

The caucus-goers themselves were surprised to discover they had so many peers. "I didn't even know there were this many Republicans in Northeast," people joked as they joined the winding line. "Don't tell my neighbors you saw me here."

The nearby line for the DFL caucus, on the other hand, zipped right on through. With more volunteers and fewer precincts meeting at Edison, DFLers breezed past their Republican neighbors into the warm glow of high-school fluorescent lighting.

Inside, at the registration table, Republican caucus-goers were sorted into classrooms according to ward and precinct. Each was handed a Day-Glo piece of paper and sent through the hallways to Room 111, Room 209, Room 114... They clutched the papers like hall passes, wandering past banks of lockers and colorful bulletin boards to their assigned rooms. The boards were covered with meeting announcements for the Gay-Straight Alliance and Science Club. On one poster, a kitten clung to a branch, encouraging students to be "Tenacious."

Not bad advice for Kasich, one woman remarked.

I settled into a classroom assigned to Ward 1, Precinct 1.

Confusion reigned; no one was quite sure when to start, or if we were all waiting for something.

"That's democracy," sighed a man in a leather jacket.

Of the 20 people in the room, 17 were first-time caucus-goers, including the convener herself. She said she'd never planned to lead the meeting, and she didn't hold any aspirations to party leadership, but when no one else in the classroom took charge, she volunteered.

Reading from a stapled pamphlet of instructions, she called the room to order.

The first item of business was the Pledge of Allegiance. People stood, hands over hearts, looking around the room uncertainly for where to direct the familiar words.

Where was "the flag" to pledge allegiance to?

Viva Mexico! banners hung from the ceiling.
Viva Mexico! banners hung from the ceiling of the classroom as it played host to a Republican caucus meeting Tuesday night.
Tracy Mumford | MPR News

There was none. We were in a Spanish classroom. Paper decorations proclaiming "Viva Mexico" hung over our heads.

"They don't have flags in schools anymore," the convener shrugged, plowing through the rest of the recitation.

After that, she moved swiftly, turning the stapled pages. Was anyone a felon? No. Did anyone want to elect precinct leaders? No. Did anyone want to speak about their candidate? No.

The room just wanted to vote. But were there ballots? No.

With the flood of participants and a shortage of volunteers, there were no official ballots in the classroom. The 8 p.m. deadline loomed.

"After that, our ballots won't be legal," one woman worried.

The group made do with informal ballots — those neon papers that had led them to the classroom — writing down their candidates' names in secret and folding the radiant sheets in half. The lone observer, I stayed seated in the corner, picking up new Spanish vocabulary from the walls.

People passed their ballots to the room's elected teller, a man with a giant muskie on his sweatshirt, one of the few in the precinct who had been to a caucus before.

Some people waited for the tally of the room's votes, but others drifted out, their democratic duty complete. That's when the official ballots showed up. A motion had to be made to accept that the teller would transfer the votes from the Day-Glo papers to the official white ones.

A poster on the classroom's wall
A poster in an Edison High School Spanish classroom declares solidarity with undocumented immigrants. The room played host to Republican caucus-goers Tuesday night, March 2, 2016.
Tracy Mumford | MPR News

"Do we trust him?" a man asked. They decided that they did. The teller would be left with the busywork, after he read out the count:

Ted Cruz: 4.

Donald Trump: 10.

Ca-sitch? "Kasich," the room corrected him.

"Well, they didn't spell it the way I would have," the teller said. "Kasich, one."

Marco Rubio: 5.

There were no sighs. No whoops. No groans. Nothing of the vigor I had expected to see when 20 people meet face-to-face, squeeze into too-tiny chairs with desks attached and pick a candidate. It was anticlimactic.

But the classroom decorations made it an odd place to celebrate a victory for Trump, who's promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and who has spoken broadly about banning all Muslims from entering the country.

There was a poster on the wall of that Spanish classroom, with a group of people holding hands and carrying a sign that said "Undocumented."

"No papers," it said. "No fear."