Long lines, confusion soured the caucuses for some

Caucus goers express support.
Caucus-goers express their support for state Rep. candidate Ilhan Omar at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

More than 300,000 Minnesotans gathered to express their opinions at Tuesday night's precinct caucuses. The state DFL and Republican parties see the high turnout as a victory, but some caucus-goers report frustration with the process.

Republican voters set a new record for caucus attendance this year, with at least 112,000 people caucusing. That's an 80 percent increase over the previous record of 62,000, set in 2008.

Chair Keith Downey of the Republican Party of Minnesota attributed part of the high Republican turnout to dissatisfaction with President Obama's administration. But he also said the high-profile contest among the main Republican candidates was itself a draw.

"The candidates themselves inspired people and the candidate campaigns really got out and did a great job turning people out and exciting the base and drawing attention to the race," he said.

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Downey hopes the high Republican turnout means that typically Democratic Minnesota might become a battleground state in the general presidential election.

There was also high turnout on the Democratic side. The Minnesota DFL Party said about 200,000 Democrats caucused. That's the second highest attendance in DFL history, just behind 2008.

Democratic caucus goers supported Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 24 percentage points.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said the high turnout and vote were partly a testament to Sanders' strong campaign in the state.

"What it shows is that there's a lot of enthusiasm for our candidates and what we're fighting for," Martin said. "People really understand the stakes of this presidential election coming up. They're engaged, motivated."

But the caucuses weren't without complications and confusion. Voters reported long lines and precincts that had run out of ballots.

Anne Fundakowski caucused with Republicans at Vadnais Heights Elementary. She waited in line for more than an hour and was worried her vote wouldn't be counted.

A caucus volunteer stuffs ballots.
A caucus volunteer stuffs ballots into a full envelope during the DFL caucus at St. Paul Central High School on Tuesday.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

"There was confusion about whether they would allow us to vote, because they almost didn't stamp our hand coming in," she said. "Then once we got in there was confusion about whether to let us cast a vote because it was after the 8 o'clock closing time."

Nathan Teegarden planned to attend a DFL caucus in St. Paul. When he arrived, the waiting line stretched the length of the school that was hosting his caucus.

"I drove up to the building anyway," he said. "There was no parking. I drove around for a while looking for parking. And I'd seen the lines at the doors to the building and figured even if I could park, I'd be waiting in line for a while. So probably after half an hour I just gave up and went home."

Teegarden and Fundakowski would both like to see the state's poorly understood caucus system replaced with a primary election.

Caucuses in Minnesota are run by the state parties. The DFL and Republican party chairs said they plan to look at their caucus processes to see what they can improve.

The DFL's Martin said he'll leave the question of whether to replace caucuses with primaries in the hands of the state Legislature.

Caucuses are party-run meetings with informal ballots, whereas primaries work more like a traditional vote. They allow voters to come and go throughout the day.

Martin said he sees positive sides to the current process.

"We have a system that really empowers those who show up," he said. "What I worry about is that if we went to a primary, we would really just become a state where deep-pocketed candidates rule the day, and there's no opportunity for people who care about the direction of their party to have a say in the process."

About 15,000 people volunteered for the DFL caucuses alone.

Chester Dryke, who convened his DFL caucus in Brooklyn Park, said nine out of 10 people seemed new to the caucus process this year. He said he answered a lot of questions, but told people that "if they really want to get involved, this is where to start."

This story was produced with the help of the Public Insight Network.