Caucuses provide stage for workings of democracy

ELECTION NEWS: It’s a chance to shape the political parties and the fortunes of candidates.

Minnesotans will caucus on Tuesday, Feb. 7, gathering in neighborhoods across the state for an exercise in democracy.

“It’s always a big deal,” said Minnesota DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin of the caucuses.

DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie views the caucuses as a chance for people to arrange the “building blocks” of parties by molding party platforms.

Beyond this, Ritchie sees the caucuses as providing candidates willing to spend the time, make the phone calls and wear out the shoe leather, with a means of making their political mark without spending a lot of money.

Caucuses can be wellsprings of new ideas, Martin said.

He cites an idea out of a northern Minnesota caucus in the 1950s that Hubert Humphrey latched onto, an idea about helping that eventually took the shape of the Peace Corps.

This year, a presidential year, will add zest to the caucuses as Republicans and Democrats will feature presidential straw polls.

In 2008, in a presidential race matching Sen. Hillary Clinton against Sen. Barack Obama, some 220,000 Democrats caucused in a record-setting display of fervor.

“I remember standing in a line a mile long,” Martin quipped.

Republican officials are hopeful of a big caucus turnout for their non-binding presidential straw poll.

Some of the parties are getting innovate in their approach to the caucus.

The Independence Party of Minnesota this year is hosting a live, online caucus.

“I’d love to see a hundred people (participate),” said IP Chairman Mark Jenkins. Jenkins expects a few glitches, but also foresee the use of technology continuing into the future.

Details about the live, online IP caucus can be found on the party’s website: www.independenceminnesota.org.

The IP will have caucuses at more than 40 locations on Feb. 7 — Edina, Bloomington, Eagan, Minnetonka, Plymouth, Coon Rapids, Stillwater, elsewhere.

To find where to caucus, check the Secretary of State’s website under “Elections” for a caucus-finder to locate the caucus in your neighborhood. Caucusing begins at 7 p.m.

In addition to the Republican, Democratic, and Independence parties, the Green and Constitution parties are also caucusing. The Grassroots and Libertarian parties are not.

To be eligible to participate in a caucus, attendees must be eligible to vote in the next general election, live in the precinct, and in general agree with the principles of the political party.

Delegates to party conventions are often elected at caucuses.

One theory about caucuses is that supporters of opposition parties sometimes infiltrate competing caucuses to twist the results.

While Martin and Jenkins don’t wholly discount the scenario, they downplay it. “It would be very difficult to accomplish,” Martin said.

Democrats are eager to bring new blood into their caucuses, he explained. Democratic statewide candidates have struggled, Martin believes, in part because the same people attend the party’s caucuses. And these activists tend to send similar-patterned candidates into the primaries, election after election.

A turnout of 100,000 citizens on caucus night wouldn’t be too bad, Ritchie indicated. Martin expects around 30,000 people to attend the DFL caucuses this year.

Jenkins said he was unfamiliar with the previous IP caucus turnouts, but, whatever the total, they’re hoping for more, he explained.

The IP, which has seen some election success in Minnesota, is focusing on getting a half dozen candidates elected to the Legislature, Jenkins said.

“I’d be lying if I’d say I’d be disappointed at two or three,” he said.

Attempts to contact Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Pat Shortridge were not successful.

The Secretary of State’s Office will post the results of the caucus night presidential straw polls on its website. The results will be provided by the parties.

T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

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