Hourlong waits prompt Democrats to bolster Fargo caucus site

Voters wait in line for the North Dakota Democratic presidential caucus.
Voters wait in line for the North Dakota Democratic presidential caucus in a union hall in Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday. The strong turnout forced party officials to bring in extra equipment and volunteers.
Dave Kolpack/AP

Updated: 8:29 p.m.

Democrats moved Tuesday to bolster staffing at the largest of North Dakota's 14 caucus sites after heavy turnout forced some voters in Fargo, N.D., to wait in line as long as an hour.

The party was expecting a big surge in turnout due to a revamping of the state's caucus system and high interest in the presidential race. North Dakota shifted this year from traditional caucuses to so-called “firehouse caucuses” that function largely like a typical election, with voters able to show up, cast a ballot and leave.

The process is run by the parties. Democrats set up 14 voting sites around the state, with voting from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The lines were longest in Fargo, the state's largest city and home to North Dakota State University. The party said wait times in Grand Forks, home to the University of North Dakota, were about 40 minutes. Lines were shorter in Bismarck and Minot.

“We’ve seen an exciting number of new voters and many people who need help looking up their voting districts, which adds some time to processing,” said Alex Rohr, state Democratic Party spokesperson. “When we saw long lines, we activated additional volunteers, staff, and equipment.”

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To speed the process, workers handed people in line a form to fill out with information to determine their voting district in order to get a ballot. As the post-work rush began at the Fargo union hall, the party had set up five propane heaters to warm people in line outside, and traffic was growing with cars waiting to get into the hall parking lot or find a place to park. Volunteers were serving coffee in the parking lot, and the mood was mostly upbeat.

When the line was cut off at 7 p.m., the scheduled closing time, about 250 people remained. The party said all would be allowed to vote, and they were expected to finish in about an hour.

Bob Pieri, a professor at North Dakota State University and the very last in line, said Democrats should be happy with the big turnout.

"They've kind of come out of the woodwork," he said. “In prior elections there has hardly been anyone to populate the voting location.”

“This is the way to do it,” said Debra Nelson, 68, of Fargo. She said the long lines at the F-M Labor Temple shows that people want a chance in Washington.

Rohr said the number of voting locations and the time frame for voting were dictated by Democrats' “volunteer force. He pointed out that the party gave voters a mail-in option for people who didn’t want to or couldn’t travel significant distances to vote, or otherwise had problems.

Rick Gion, a longtime North Dakota Democrat, said he received an "all hands on deck" call from the state party chair shortly before noon on Tuesday, asking for volunteers to help in Fargo. Gion spent much of his time helping handicapped people, families with babies and other people who may not have dressed for the occasion get moved inside.

“People are so excited about getting President Trump out of office," Gion said. "The lines are long and people are being so patient.”

Billie Lentz, 20, a North Dakota State University student, said the wait in Fargo was worth it.

“I am honestly blown away. I couldn't be happier with this turnout,” said Lentz, originally an Amy Klobuchar supporter who switched her allegiance to Joe Biden. “I was happy to see this many people taking time out of their day making sure this was a priority.”