Caucus is six-letter word for democracy

You probably won’t go to a party caucus tonight.
Most Minnesotans won’t. But caucus turnout is always low, and Minnesota’s confused electoral system only reduces participation. The state has for years held caucuses to give candidates party endorsements, followed by primary elections to determine who gets on the November ballot. The primaries tend to cheapen the caucuses, because the elections can reverse the party’s caucus decisions. Four years ago, Republican Alan Quist got the caucus nod to run for governor, defeating Gov. Arne Carlson. The incumbent governor then challenged Quist in the primary and won handily.
And the primaries aren’t going away anytime soon. In 1992, the state held its first presidential primary since the Eisenhower administration. Ever greater power in state politics is moving to the primaries, leading voters to abandon the caucuses. After all, precinct caucuses are messy, argumentative and time-consuming. Voting in a primary, however, takes only a few minutes and need involve no conversations other than those with the election judges. And at the voting booth, they give you an “I voted” sticker. Caucus-goers leave with only the feeling that they took charge of their own government — no small task, that.
Not many people have ever gone to a caucus, though, and don’t really know enough to judge the process. First, voters must choose their party. In most precincts, the choice is between DFL and Republican gatherings. Many precincts, especially those in the Twin Cities, also offer Reform Party caucuses. The assemblies can take three or four hours, depending on who shows up and in what numbers. Everyone votes on everything. Time-consuming rules of procedure keep things fair. There’s ample opportunity for everyone to speak, and they often do. Resolutions can be introduced on any topic, and a few die-hards always bring a handful of pet issues to debate. Each resolution means some time for debate and amendment, followed by another vote.
And then, at the end of the night, no candidates have been endorsed. Instead, precinct residents stand for election as delegates to the district caucuses. Generally, precinct delegates are chosen because of the candidates they support, but not always. Only in late spring, when the district’s delegates gather for the state party conventions, are candidates endorsed. So while the precinct caucuses spend a great deal of time discussing real candidates for elected office — and this year’s caucuses will be especially interesting, with hotly contested gubernatorial races in both main parties — they also spend a lot of time listening to neighbors campaign for election to the next caucus.
At the end of the night, almost everyone is tired, worn out and at least a little cranky. Tempers flare as neighbors debate how to run the government. Some disagree just to be contrary. Others vote with the majority to speed things up. And more than anything else, everyone talks. And votes. And talks some more. In short, tonight’s caucuses will be plain, old-fashioned democracy. The precinct gatherings will be nothing more, and nothing less, than the best thing America has to offer: a place to govern ourselves.
But then, you probably won’t go to your caucus tonight.