Minnesota Caucuses: FAQ

So I want to address a couple of questions that I’ve been asked about caucuses (or seen people asking about caucuses) over the last week or two.

Q. Do I go to my polling place? 

No. Find out your caucus location here:
http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us/
and note that Republican and DFL caucuses are in completely different locations. Don’t go to the wrong one. A vote for Marco Rubio cast at a DFL caucus will be snickered at and filed with the other oddball votes and spoiled ballots. Ditto a vote for Bernie cast at a Republican caucus.

Q. Do I have to stay for the whole meeting?

No, you don’t.

If you’re a Democrat, you can go, sign in, get your ballot, cast it, and leave.

If you’re a Republican, you can leave after balloting, which is the first item of actual business on the agenda. Exactly when that will happen is a little uncertain, since it depends on how long it takes to get everyone signed in and for the convener to get things going. But if you want to leave once you’ve handed in your ballot, you can do so.

Q. How early can I come and get a ballot / how late can I come and still vote?

If you’re a Republican:

The caucus should convene at 7. The ballots will be handed out as the first order of business; my helpful Republican contact thought that at most caucuses this would probably happen at around 7:15. I would recommend that you try to get there at the beginning of the meeting.  Once you’ve handed your ballot in, you can leave. If you arrive late and they’ve finished voting, you are out of luck.

If you’re a Democrat:

According to the DFL’s official call (which you can find here) you can get your ballot as early as 6:30, when they start allowing people to sign in, and they need to keep balloting open until 8 p.m.

The actual language from the official call is in section II.B.4., on the fourth page of the PDF. “4. Preference Ballot. After registering by completing and signing the precinct roll, each eligible attendee will be given a ballot on which the attendee can indicate a preference for President (including uncommitted status). Balloting shall begin when registration opens and shall end one hour after the caucus convenes.” (Caucuses convene at 7 p.m.)

Following the precedent of polling places, if there are people in line at 8, they are supposed to keep balloting open until everyone’s gotten a ballot.

For either:

I mentioned this before but it bears repeating: before you head to your caucus, make sure you know your ward and precinct numbers. If there’s a huge line outside the school building, probably the bottleneck is not “signing in and getting ballots” but “a bunch of people are consulting the ward map to figure out which classroom they should go to.” If you can find another way into the school, you can head straight to the classroom where your precinct is meeting. There will undoubtedly be another line outside that classroom, but at least this one will be indoors.

Q. I’m a Democrat and in a hurry. What is my best strategy for getting in and out quickly but still being able to cast a ballot? 

Here is my suggestion. My recollection from 2008 is that the lines were at their worst between 6:45 and 7:15 as everyone got sorted out, sent to the correct room, and signed in. I would aim for 7:30 as the best compromise between “standing in the endless line” and “possibly getting delayed and not making it in time.” If you want to cut it a little closer, you could aim for 7:45, but bear in mind that parking is likely to be extremely annoying.

Even arriving late, you may still have to wait in a long line. They are expecting attendance to be extremely high this year.

Q. So okay, I actually am fine with either Bernie or Hillary but I am really not fine with Trump. I am thinking of going to the Republican caucus instead, and voting for Marco Rubio, even though I am definitely planning to vote for the Democrat (either Democrat) in the general election. Can I do that?

Short answer: you’re not supposed to, though it’s unlikely that anyone would stop you.

Longer answer: when you sign in for a caucus, you are affirming your overall agreement with the principles of the party you’re signing in for. Whether you’re comfortable doing that when it’s not true is really between you and your conscience (or between your conscience and your ability to focus on statements in the Republican platform that you agree with.)

In theory, if someone is in a caucus who really doesn’t belong there, the person who knows they don’t belong can challenge their participation. And, you are caucusing with your neighbors, so if you routinely put up yard signs for DFL candidates, someone from down the block might out you as a liberal. I think the odds of this happening are actually really slim, because Minnesotans in general are not a confrontational bunch.

Far more likely: you’ll run into a neighbor you’ve never discussed politics with. And they’ll get all excited when they see you and say, “oh, wow, I had no idea you were a fellow Republican!” and then going forward they’ll want to chat politics with you and you’ll either have to admit why you were in there or live the lie forever. Awkward. 

Finally, you have to write down your phone number when you sign in. And you will get endless calls hitting you up for money not only for the eventual Republican presidential nominee but for any Republican candidates in tight races. (Note: signing in at a DFL caucus will also get you a bunch of phone calls, of course. I spent a period of about three years fielding endless calls from both parties, and in my experience getting fundraising calls from my own side is not a whole lot less irritating.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: The one thing you really truly may not do is go to more than one caucus on Tuesday night. Caucusing twice is illegal.

(I am not sure if there are any Republicans out there considering crossing party lines to caucus with the Democrats, but all of the above information applies in the other direction: you’re affirming agreement with the principles of the party when you sign in, you can theoretically be kicked out if someone realizes you’re actually a Republican but that’s very unlikely to happen, and you might run into a neighbor who is super excited to realize that you are in their political camp. And you’ll get badgered for money for Democratic candidates.)

Q. Don’t we have a primary in August? Can I just wait and vote in that?

We have a primary election in August but it is not a presidential primary. This is your one shot at participating in the process of selecting a presidential candidate.

The August primaries are for Minnesota races, like seats in the legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. (And you can, and should, participate in that election.)

Q. I am a [CANDIDATE] supporter and I’m pretty sure that if anything goes wrong, that is [OTHER CANDIDATE]’s dirty tricks and/or the party establishment conspiring against us!

[heavy sigh]

This is a system run by the political parties using unpaid volunteers who attended maybe a two-hour training.

Things are going to go wrong. The lines are going to be horrible and that is not due to a conspiracy by anyone; it’s just what happens when you have to get hundreds/thousands (depends on the location) of people through a narrow bottleneck and sorted out into classrooms, over the course of about a half hour, using a process that almost no one is actually familiar with.

I am sure that the local DFL party leaders have preferences between Hillary and Bernie, (and the local GOP party leaders have preferences between Rubio, Kasich, Trump, and Cruz) but their #1 priority on Tuesday night is to build the party. They want to get you through that doorway, writing down your name and phone number and affirming your support for the DFL (or GOP) alongside your neighbors. They care about that far more than which presidential candidate you vote for, because they’re not just in it for the presidential race — they are deeply aware of the importance of the other races, not just this year but two years from now.

No one from either party wants to keep you out of the process. The problems you will inevitably encounter are not the result of malice. It is incredibly difficult to build organizational competence at running a complex event when (a) you have an all-volunteer staff and (b) this ginormous event happens either once every four years or once every eight years. (Caucuses are held annually, but a caucus when it’s just the wonks showing up is basically a completely different event.)

Q.  Caucuses are terrible. Who do I talk to about switching to a Primary?

I would suggest e-mailing your State Senator and State House Representative. To find out who those people are, you can check here: http://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/districtfinder

You can also try e-mailing the Minnesota Secretary of State, Steve Simon, since his office runs elections in general: http://www.sos.state.mn.us/

Finally, you might consider introducing a resolution at your caucus to have Minnesota implement a Presidential Primary election rather than relying on party caucuses for this purpose! The DFL resolution form is here; the Republican form is here.

Print it and fill it out before you go to your caucus. (You will have to stay for more of the meeting if you want to introduce a resolution.) You don’t have to use fancy language: “Minnesota should have a Presidential Primary” is a perfectly acceptable action item. When you speak on behalf of your resolution, bear in mind that the people at your caucus will include at least a few people who think caucuses are the greatest thing ever (so “caucuses suck” may not be very convincing), but even fans of the caucus system will often agree that it’s a problem that caucuses exclude all the people who have to rely on absentee ballots to vote in elections, from immune-suppressed cancer patients to deployed members of the U.S. Military.

My recollection from some years back is that one sticking point with primaries is that the state pays for elections, elections are really expensive, we don’t do any other elections in March or April that we could just piggyback the presidential primary with, and just overall, the State of Minnesota would greatly prefer to just stick the parties with the cost of running caucuses rather than shouldering the cost of running a primary election. But this could be changed, and I’m pretty sure it would be up to the legislature.

 

 

Political Conventions, and why you might want to go

I was actually going to write up a FAQ on caucuses next, but I got hung up on not knowing the answer to something for the GOP caucuses. I sent out e-mails, had to wait for a response, and decided that in the meantime, I might as well write my post on political conventions.

When you go to your caucus, if you stay for the meeting, one of the questions you will hear is whether you’d like to be a delegate to the next-level convention. Most of the time, there are enough slots that anyone who wants to can sign up to be a delegate.

Sometimes there are a few more people who want to be delegates than there are slots, and they’ll ask if anyone’s willing to be an alternate. If you’re an alternate, the theory is that you’ll fill in if any of the delegates from your precinct don’t show up. (Most of the time, all the alternates who show up get promoted to delegates.)

When you vote in the fall, your ballot will have the Presidential race at the top. In Minnesota, we are not voting on the Governor (or other statewide offices like Attorney General) this year, nor are either of our Senators currently up for re-election. However, all our U.S. House Representatives are running for re-election and that race will be on the ballot. (If you are in the 2nd district, this is a particularly interesting year. If you’re represented by Betty McCollum or Keith Ellison, not so much.)

Continuing down the ballot, you will also see your state legislators. You have a State Senator and a State Representative, and both races will be on the ballot. Finally, depending on how your city structures things, you may have city races this year. (Not in St. Paul or Minneapolis, though.)

The DFL endorses people for most of the non-judicial races. The statewide people are endorsed at the State Convention, but the legislative races are endorsed at the smaller, local-unit conventions and you, if you go, can get to be one of the ones to decide.

(I’m pretty much just making this post about the DFL, because I have never been to a Republican convention. I expect that they are very similar in most ways, but I don’t know in which key ways they differ.)

How much the DFL’s endorsement matters varies tremendously by race. Historically, in the very big statewide races — U.S. Senate and Governor — it doesn’t actually matter much. In the smaller races, though, especially legislative races, it often basically decides the race. My district would be a good exapmle of this. I live in a solidly DFL district in St. Paul (and previously, I lived in a solidly DFL district in Minneapolis). In this sort of district, legislators who are DFL incumbents almost always win, and when they retire, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the office nearly always wins. So any time there’s an opening, the big race is for the endorsement.

The endorsement for State Senator and State Rep is done at the Senate District (/House District) convention. That is the thing to which you can probably become a delegate, if you want.

(The other major thing that happens at the local-unit conventions is that they elect delegates who get to go to the State Convention. I’ll explain that in more detail further down.)

State Legislature Endorsements for Beginners

So first off, your district may not have an upcoming vacancy. There’s still a convention when there aren’t any vacancies, but endorsing a bunch of unopposed incumbents is pretty dull.

But, sometimes you have an open seat; sometimes the incumbent has done something infuriating and generated a bunch of opposition challenging him or her for endorsement; or maybe you live in a swing district, and there’s currently someone from the other party in that seat and your party has a shot at retaking it. (If you live in a district that is a safe seat for the other side, these endorsements tend to be more “let’s volunteer Fred, since he’s not here.” Okay, I exaggerate slightly.)

Let’s say you have an open seat because your State Senator is retiring, and let’s say you signed up to be a delegate when you were at your precinct caucus. There are several hundred delegates who will be meeting at your Senate District Convention to decide on an endorsement, and one of them is you. That means that each candidate who is running, and there will probably be quite a few, really needs your support. Instead of convincing 50% of the thousands of voters in your district, they need to win over 60% of the delegates — a much, much smaller group.

So if you’re a delegate, you can expect to be contacted, personally, either by phone or by door-knocking, by each of the people who are running. They may not be experts on your particular set of concerns, but you will never have a more attentive ear from a (future) legislator than when they’re running and you’re a delegate. Since they need strong enthusiasm from a small number of people, you can expect that they will have the time to answer your questions and respond to your very specific concerns, whatever they are.

In addition to chatting with candidates, you might also want to chat with politically-connected friends in your district who can dish any interesting back-room gossip. I recommend having a favorite, a list of people who would be fine with you, and a list of people you really don’t want to see get the nod.

At the Convention

So for your imaginary open Senate Seat, let’s say you’ve got five candidates who’ve filed. After talking to all of them, your favorite is Andrea Jackson. Your least favorite is Bill Smith. You think that Carmela Garcia or Dan Feinman would also be fine. You think that Esmeralda Moonbeam sounds like a weirdo.

When you first arrive, you will have to check in with the organizers to get your credentials. There will probably be a line. Once you sign in, they will hand you a printed form on colored paper (it’s about the size, shape, and weight of an ancient computer punch card, if that means anything to you) with your precinct and ward printed on it along with the word DELEGATE. It will be on a ribbon or piece of yarn so you can wear it around your neck. You are expected to do so.

Next, you should check in with your candidate’s campaign. (They’ll have a table.) Tell them you’re a supporter, and they will give you a t-shirt or button or both. Put those on, too. The t-shirt serves a couple of purposes, but the most important is that it communicates to your candidate’s campaign that they need to let you know if there’s something they need you to do. Often, candidates want all their supporters to come up on the stage and stand behind them when it’s time for them to make a speech. More crucially, sometimes there’s some interesting parliamentary maneuver that someone is trying to pull, or trying to thwart, in which case your candidate’s volunteers need to know that you need to get the message on what’s happening. You might not realize that it’s critically important that you vote NO on some very routine-sounding procedural thing until your candidate’s campaign tells you.

These are always held at schools, so far as I can tell. Typically the convention itself is in the school auditorium, lunch room, or gym. Each campaign gets a classroom that’s like their campaign clubhouse. They will have snacks for their supporters (another reason for your t-shirt!) and when it gets to be dinner time, they’ll order pizza. Usually, when I go to a convention, I check in with my candidate first thing, then go track down their room so I know where to go when I get hungry.

There will be a section of the auditorium that’s reserved for your precinct, and that’s where you’ll be spending most of the day.

This is a Really Long Meeting

Typically the convention gets called to order at 10 a.m., although a lot of delegates arrive late. There is a ton of time at these that is spent on stuff that makes you wonder why you gave up a lovely spring Saturday to go sit in a high school auditorium. Like ten-minute-long debates on whether some person should be allowed to speak for two minutes.

There are people who are much better at running efficient conventions than others, you will discover if you go to a bunch of these. I am a big fan of the efficient people.

Bring an extra battery for your smartphone, bring your knitting, bring a book.

Speeches!

There will be lots of speeches.

Typically there’s some time allocated for candidate Q&A, so that people who have not made up their minds will have information to go on.

Lots of elected officials come to speak, either about their own upcoming race or to get you revved up about the DFL generally. At various conventions I’ve heard Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, R.T. Rybak, Chris Coleman, various and sundry City Council reps, Park Board people, County Attorneys… never all of the headliners at one convention, mind you. (They try to spread themselves out.)

If there’s a state-wide race coming up, you’ll also hear either from candidates or from people who are there to speak on their behalf.

 

When it comes time to really deal with the people running for State Senate, there are official speeches from each candidate (that’s when you might get herded up to stand behind them. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to.)

It is entirely up to you how much attention you pay to any of this. At the last convention I went to, there were large portions of it that I couldn’t hear at all due to bad acoustics and a lot of ambient noise, so I just ignored it.

You may also find yourself talking to candidates and campaigns through all of this. Especially if you look around the crowd and notice that your t-shirt color is super outnumbered — that’s a good sign that you should start thinking about your fallback choice. People from the other campaigns will find you and say, “hi, can I talk to you about Carmela?” or “can I talk to you about Bill?” They’re not necessarily trying to sway you from Andrea; they’re trying to get you to consider their candidate as your fallback.

When I get this question, I usually say, “sure!” and let them give me their pitch. One of the questions I often ask volunteers is, “why did you decide to support Carmela?” because their answers are often very enlightening. (Unless it’s, “oh! well, she’s my mom.”) At an actual convention, they’ll sometimes ask you, “would you like to speak to Carmela directly?”

You may get asked this same question by the people you’re sitting near. Feel free to talk about what you find appealing about the person you’re supporting! Remember that you’re not trying to convince them to drop their candidate for yours; you’re presenting reasons why your candidate would be a terrific second choice, if their candidate gets dropped from the ballot early.

 

Balloting

I am always shocked at how late in the day it is when we finally start balloting.

This is the bit where you really need to be wearing your credentials. If you were an alternate, a lot of the time everyone present just gets automatically upgraded, but if that didn’t happen, definitely check in before balloting and see if you can get an upgrade. If not, you won’t even be allowed in the room when the balloting happens.

They will seat everyone in their precinct, and they will give carefully counted ballots to the precinct captain, who will bring them, distribute them, and collect them.

Right before the balloting happens, they “freeze the floor,” which means that they shut the doors and no one else is allowed in. If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you can literally use your chance to vote in that round. Once the countdown starts to voting, get into the room and stay there. It won’t actually take long, and you’ll have plenty of time to pee or get a snack while they’re counting all the ballots.

Then they count the first ballot, which also takes forever. (It speeds up a lot as they eliminate candidates.)

The Resolutions

Somewhere in this whole process you’ll get handed a packet of resolutions and a scan-tron sheet to fill in. This is a compilation of all the resolutions that got passed by precinct caucuses, compiled together by people who did their best to roll stuff together so that “MN should have a primary!” and “caucuses are the worst, holy cow, THE ABSOLUTE WORST, and we should have presidential primaries like every other civilized state” get combined into something concise.

During the various periods of downtime you can go through this packet and mark the scan-tron ballot to indicate the ones you find particularly important or unimportant. There’s no limit to how many you can mark. This data gets compiled after the convention and forwarded on to the platform committee.

Dropping Candidates and More Balloting

Once the results come back, they report the results and then immediately start the countdown to freeze the floor for the next round.

They will drop any candidates that got below a certain threshhold of votes. The required percentage goes up with each round, so each time it gets harder to stay on the ballot — or maybe they’ve switched to just dropping the lowest vote-getter until we’re down to two? I can’t remember if that’s officially how they do it, or if it’s just how functionally it tends to work out.

In this make-believe Senate race, we’re going to say that in the very first round of balloting, they drop Esmeralda Moonbeam and Dan Feinman.

Esmeralda and Dan’s people now have to vote for someone else. (Or leave. Sometimes they just leave.) At this imaginary convention, you’re seated next to an Esmeralda supporter, who is very disappointed that her candidate dropped out, but decides to vote for Andrea because you’re wearing an Andrea t-shirt and she has bonded with you over knitting so thinks your favorite candidate would be a good choice.

(At the last convention I went to, the woman across the table from me told me that I seemed like a delightful person and did I know any single women who might be interested in her son? I said, “well, I do have some single friends. But, um, I kind of don’t have their permission to randomly matchmake for them at political conventions?” and she said, “oh, here, let me give you my card.” I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)

You usually have a couple more rounds of balloting. Sometimes this is expedited by people seeing that they have no realistic chance and pre-emptively dropping out so as not to waste everyone’s time. Eventually you get down to two people.

The Final Face-Off and All the Fun Ways This Can Go Awry

In order to get the endorsement, a candidate needs 60% of the ballots. So you get down to those last two, and there’s a split.

At that point, a couple of things can happen.

The most frequent outcome I’ve seen is that some people shift. If I came in planning to support Andrea, and she’s made it into the final two but she’s got 45% of the vote and Carmela has 55%, and I’m fine with Carmela, I’ll usually go ahead and shift. Enough people do that, and voila, on the next ballot Carmela has the 60%.

If things are very close, or if this is an acrimonious campaign where the two sides feel very strongly that the opposing candidate is unacceptable, there’s more likely to be a deadlock. The very first Senate District Convention I went to ran until after 10 p.m. It can turn in a test of endurance.

Frequently, when it’s clear no one will shift, there’s an adjournment without an endorsement. There are a number of ways in which this can happen. That very late-night SD Convention, we weren’t allowed to vote for adjournment until after a certain number of ballots, but once we’d racked up the required number of rounds, we could adjourn with a simple majority and didn’t need 60%. And that’s what happened.

At a Minneapolis City Convention some years back, both campaigns sent representatives up to propose an adjournment (making it clear that this was desired on both sides). It was very clear even after the first ballot that things were sufficiently split that there wasn’t going to be an endorsement, and so we had a (surprisingly amicable) agreement to adjourn.

In order for a convention to conduct business, you need a quorum: there has to be a certain number of people there. So sometimes a campaign will herd all its people out of the room, then call the quorum, usually right before a floor freeze. If a quorum is not present the convention is required to adjourn immediately. (If you get grabbed by someone wearing your candidate’s t-shirt saying “out, get out, get out!” … that’s the tactic they’re attempting.) This can massively backfire if not enough people leave the room — since at that point, you’ve just yanked a bunch of your supporters out of the room and they won’t be able to vote on that ballot and the other candidate will happily coast to endorsement.

The other risk with using the “break the quorum” approach is that when a convention just adjourns without finishing its business, the local central committee has the option of doing an endorsement. (I think in theory this is an option with a planned adjournment as well, but much less likely. Or maybe you usually pass a “no going behind our back and endorsing someone” motion as your adjourn? Usually by that point in the process I’m so desperate to get the hell out I’m not paying close attention.)

Picking Delegates for the State Convention

One of the other agenda items at the Senate District convention is picking delegates to go on to the State Convention. There are always more people who want to go than slots available, so to send delegates, we do Walking Subcaucuses.

People “nominate subcaucuses,” which means they go up to the microphone and suggest groups. Sometimes the groups are to support a specific candidate for whatever major statewide office is currently up for grabs; sometimes they are uncommitted, but with a specific focus on a certain issue. The idea is that those delegates will go to the State Convention with the goal of endorsing whichever candidate is the best on whatever their particular issue is.

So if you’re sitting there, you’ll hear people go up to the microphone and say things like, “Uncommitted for Environmental Issues,” or “Uncommitted for Stop Global Warming Now,” or “Uncommitted for Education.” As well as “People for Mike Cerisi” or “Minnesotans for Al Franken,” and there was a trend for a while where a dozen different people would all nominate the same candidate but with a different phrasing, like “Al Franken for CHOICE” or “Al Franken for VETERANS” or “Al Franken for KITTENS AND PUPPIES AND RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS.”

The organizers will then announce where everyone should go. Groups that are obviously related (like Environmental Issues and Stop Global Warming) will always go next to each other so that they can easily combine (…because they totally will).

Now it’s time for everyone to move around! (This is why it’s called a walking subcaucus.) You pick your favorite subcaucus and physically go over and hang out with them. If you have a favorite candidate for the contested statewide office, you go stand with that group. If you want to send uncommitted delegates for some issue, pick an issue.

Someone will run around and physically count everyone and then they will announce a number that gives a subcaucus “viability.” That means that your subcaucus needs to have that many people in it in order to qualify for one delegate and one alternate. If the number is 12, and you have 11 people, you look around for a person at loose ends or a smaller subcaucus you can absorb. If the number is 12, and you have 5 people, you might look for a larger subcaucus you can join as a group, or you might just go your separate ways. In any case, they give you a few minutes to shuffle around and redivide, and then they freeze the floor, count everyone again, then tell each subcaucus how many delegates they get.

So let’s say you’re in a subcaucus of 14 people and will have one delegate and one alternate. Now you have to pick your delegate and alternate. Let’s say you have four people who would love to go to the State Convention: typically each person gets a minute or two to make a speech to the rest of the subcaucus about why they’d be a good person to send, and then you vote, probably just by raising hands and counting. The top vote-getter is the delegate, the runner up is usually the alternate, and I am trying to remember if the DFL still mandates gender-balance because if it does, then it’s the nearest runner-up of the opposite gender.

If you actually go to the State Convention

It lasts for multiple days and I’ve never been elected as a delegate, so I can’t tell you much about what it’s like.

Other Conventions

So there’s a Congressional District Convention (for your U.S. House seat) that will be critical this year in the 2nd District, since Kline is stepping down. I don’t remember if they send a subset of the State Convention delegates or if that one gets its own Walking Subcaucus process.

In Minneapolis, in years with city races, there may be a Ward Convention if you need to endorse a candidate for City Council, and there’s a City Convention to endorse candidates for Mayor, School Board, and Park Board. There’s also a County Convention where candidates for County Board, Sheriff, County Attorney, etc. get endorsed. St. Paul does a similar set of conventions — Ward, City, County — but has no Park Board. City offices vary some by city.

Last year in St. Paul, the school board race was particularly contentious. Sufficiently so that we had to do walking subcaucuses at my precinct caucus to select delegates to go to the City Convention. Usually you can just sign up to go to Ward or City Conventions.

 

So in summary

If you go to your next-level convention, you will have to spend a weekend day, often at the point when the weather is finally turning nice, sitting in a high school auditorium listening to people give speeches.

However, some years and in some districts, this can give you a truly outsized piece of political influence.

Worth it or not? Very much up to you. If imagining sitting through all this makes you want to gnaw off a limb to escape, don’t put yourself through it. If you think you’d like to give it a try, sign up! (And you’re definitely allowed to sign up and not go.)

 

 

So hey, random interlude to share my awesome news

I wrote the bulk of that “what actually happens at a caucus, anyway” post weeks ago, didn’t finish it, didn’t come back to finish it, and got distracted. So I went ahead and finished that and put it up before telling you my totally-unrelated-to-the-election science fiction writer news, which is that my short story, Cat Pictures Please, published last year in Clarkesworld magazine, was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story.

There are two really big awards in SF, the Hugo and the Nebula. The Nebula is nominated and awarded by the members of SFWA (the SF/F writers’ professional organization) and the Hugo is nominated and awarded by the members of the World Science Fiction Society (the people who are attending or supporting that year’s WorldCon, basically).

I have never been up for either of these awards before and being nominated for a Nebula is SUPER AWESOME and I am delighted, honored, excited, and thrilled. Also, the other stories on the ballot are terrific and it’s amazing to be in their company.

The Nebula Awards are voted on in March and April and then awarded in mid-May. The Hugo Awards are currently in the nomination process; nominations close at the end of March, the nominees are announced sometime in April (I don’t actually know when), voting happens over the summer, and the awards take place at WorldCon in August.

(By the way, if you bought a membership in last year’s con in order to vote on the Hugo Awards, you are eligible to nominate this year — definitely take advantage of that, even if you have just a few things that you loved enough to put up for the award.)

 

Minnesota Caucuses: What Actually Happens

One of the reasons why caucuses are fundamentally such a bad way to pick presidential candidates in Minnesota of all places is that Minnesotans are kind of hypersensitive to embarrassment and find it horrifying to be somewhere that everyone else knows the rules, and they don’t.

There’s this little booklet in Episcopal churches about What to Expect if you come worship with Episcopalians and one of the points on which they reassure you is that they will not embarrass you. If you’ve ever been in a church where they made all the newcomers/visitors stand up so they could clap for you, you know exactly why the Episcopalians put that note in.

So, yeah, caucuses. They don’t make newcomers stand up so they can clap for you! Well, maybe there’s a caucus convener somewhere who does, but it is definitely not part of the agenda. Also, if you want to go to a caucus because you’re a passionate supporter of some candidate but the whole process seems sort of freaky, definitely get in touch with the campaign and tell them your precinct and ask if they can set you up with a buddy.

You can watch the DFL’s “What to Expect at your Precinct Caucus” video, or keep reading for my take.

Something everyone should know going in: caucuses are run by volunteers. Many of these volunteers have never done this before; they maybe went to a two-hour training on how to run a caucus. If you find yourself thinking, “omfg I could do this better than these losers,” you are probably correct, and if you’re willing, you can almost certainly have that opportunity!

Arriving

Your caucus will probably be held at a school. Most likely, everyone in your ward will be at the same school, with each precinct in a separate classroom.

In a presidential year with an interesting contest, attendance skyrockets. If you’ve ever been to a caucus before, you should have received a reminder card in the mail, and apparently if you bring that along it can speed things up a bit. (I predict that maybe 1 in 100 people who receive that card will think to bring it.) The thing you really want to be sure you know before you go is your ward and precinct. In fact, I checked out my Senate District Convention’s caucus page (find your own local unit here) and they had all the info down to which classroom at the school my precinct will be in. The more info like that you can track down before you head over, the more likely it is that you can skip past the long lines and head straight to the right spot. The long lines are probably not people waiting for ballots: they’re usually people who need to be told which precinct they live in.

If you can walk over to your caucus, you’ll be happy that you didn’t have to park. If you drive, leave plenty of time for parking.

(If you’re reading this in 2017 or 2018 instead of 2016, disregard that advice: off-year caucuses are a vastly smaller crowd.)

Signing In

Once you’ve gotten into the school and figured out where you’re going, you’ll probably wind up in another line to get into the classroom where your precinct is. You will sign in at the door, and usually they hand out ballots as people sign in.

You do not have to be a registered party member of anything in order to attend a precinct caucus. However, when you sign in, you’re affirming that you consider yourself generally a Democrat (if you’re at a DFL caucus) or a Republican (if you’re at a Republican caucus). You’re also affirming that you’ll be able to legitimately vote on November 8th, and that you live in the precinct.

If you’re planning to move before November 8th, that’s fine, you can caucus in your current precinct and vote at your new address in November.

How the Meetings Are Run

These meetings are run Robert’s Rules type procedures, so there are a bunch of somewhat goofy hoops that get jumped through.  The caucus convener calls the meeting to order and then the group as a whole gets to elect a person to run the meeting. In theory, this could be a hotly contested battle. In practice, people are usually happy to vote for the person who went to the training session on how you run a caucus.

There’s an agenda, which the meeting adopts. People make motions and second motions. If you’re one of the 16-year-olds at the meeting, you are allowed to participate in those parts of the meeting. (Edited to add: letting 16-year-olds participate in caucus business may be strictly a DFL thing.)

If you’re at a DFL caucus, you should turn your presidential preference ballot in before eight. If you don’t want to stay for the meeting, you can come, sign in, get your ballot, vote, hand it back to a volunteer, and leave.

If you’re at a Republican caucus, ballots will be distributed as the first order of business and then collected. (You are then free to leave, if that’s all you wanted to do.)

Resolutions

One of the things that happens at caucuses are resolutions. If you want to bring a resolution, the DFL resolutions form is online. Print it out and fill in your action item. You can skip the bits that say “whereas” and if you insist on putting those in they’re supposed to go on the back and you’re not supposed to read them. (I support this change!)

The idea is that the resolutions from the caucuses are used to revise the DFL platform. You can find the DFL platform and the DFL Action Agenda online. Before proposing a resolution, I would encourage you to check to make sure it’s not already in the platform. If there’s time, you’ll get to present your resolution to your precinct caucus, speak briefly about why it’s needed, and everyone will vote on whether to adopt it. The resolutions that get adopted all get passed to a resolutions committee, which prepares them for the Senate District Convention. (More on that in another post.)

Republicans do this, too; I couldn’t find their resolution form online, though. (Edited to add: hey, they put it up! It’s here.)

If you’re in the DFL, this is one of the things you can do at sixteen! You can also vote for or against other people’s resolutions.

Speakers

Local politicians often pop in to speak at precinct caucuses. This includes both currently elected officials and people seeking office. Typically you’ll get visits from your state legislators and city council rep, if they’re members of your party. Occasionally you’ll get a bigger name, like your Congress person or Mayor. If you’ve got an open seat for something pending, you’ll almost certainly see candidates (or people speaking on behalf of candidates).

When someone pops in, they usually catch the eye of the person running the meeting, who will pause the proceedings and request that someone move to let your visitor speak. (You can say, “So moved!” to make the requested motion.)

Recruitment

Part of the purpose of a caucus is party-building, and there are lots of entry-level, truly grassroots volunteer positions that they will be recruiting for.

Sound like fun? Go for it. Seriously, if you hear, “we need a Precinct Associate Chair” and that sounds fun to you, you are exactly the sort of person the DFL hopes to recruit to do it. Don’t worry if you’ve never done anything like it before. There’s a whole elaborate party infrastructure for teaching you what you’re supposed to be doing.

On a more immediate level, they’ll recruit tellers — people to count those ballots everyone turned in.

Some of these volunteer positions are open to people who aren’t eighteen yet. If you’re interested, ask.

Electing Delegates to the Local Organizing Unit Convention

So the next-level political meeting is a convention. Typically things run like this:

  1. Precinct caucuses.
  2. Senate District or County Conventions
    (this is the Local Organizing Unit or LOU convention in the DFL; the Basic Political Organizing Unit or BPOU convention in the Republican party.)
  3. The State Convention
  4. The National Convention

At the precinct caucuses, you elect delegates to the next-level convention. This usually takes the form of the organizer requesting a show of hands, counting, and then passing around a list for people to sign up on.

If you don’t have enough slots, it gets more complicated. But that is actually pretty rare at this level. You do have to be 18 by November 8th in order to be a delegate to the local organizing unit convention.

If you’re a Republican, you may recall that four years ago, Rick Santorum appeared to win the Minnesota caucuses and yet we sent a whole bunch of Ron Paul delegates. This is because the Ron Paul people carefully organized to make sure they sent delegates to the BPOU conventions, and since their preferential ballot wasn’t binding and Santorum’s people didn’t show up … anyway, that seriously annoyed the Republican central committee and the ballot is now binding for both parties. You do not have to go to the Senate District convention (or whatever it is for you) to make sure your presidential candidate gets their due support. I’m going to write another post about what exactly this is and why you might want to go (or really prefer NOT to go) in another post.

Counting the Ballots

If you stick around, all the ballots from your precinct will get counted and they’ll announce the totals. That’s usually the last thing that happens before they adjourn the meeting and everyone goes home.

 

Minnesota Caucuses: The Basics

So let’s say you’re a Minnesota resident, and you’ve got an opinion about either the Democratic presidential candidates, or the Republican presidential candidates.

On March 1st, you can vote for your preference by attending your precinct caucus.

Location and Time

A caucus is a meeting. Caucuses can be held anywhere the party can arrange space, but for logistical reasons, schools are very popular. Often all the precincts in a ward will be held at some local school, and each precinct gets its own classroom. (I have never been to a caucus that wasn’t held at a school. Possibly because state law requires schools to allow political parties to use them for caucuses.)

You can find your caucus location using this handy online site: http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us/

I would suggest that before you go, you note down your ward and precinct number, and if the website gives you a room number within the building, note that, too.

When I went to my precinct caucus in 2008, there was a huge, huge line leading out the front door of the building, down the block, around the corner, and down the next block. The thing is, the bottleneck was being created by people consulting ward maps to figure out which precinct they were in. I knew my precinct, so we found another door, went in that way, and just made our way to our classroom. (Which also had a line! But at least it was a shorter line. And indoors.) In a regular election, if you find a line, you just get into it, because you’re in line to get a ballot, and everyone needs to go to the same place. At a caucus, once you’re in the building there will probably be at least a dozen different rooms for each individual precinct caucus. Each room has its own line for people to stand in to sign in and get a ballot. So if there’s a line outside the building, you generally will not be cheating if you find a way around it. (Mind you, it’s possible all the other doors will be locked, but in 2008 it was definitely worth trying the other doors!)

Doors will open no later than 6:30 p.m. (Many caucus conveners are planning to be there earlier.) The meetings are supposed to be called to order at 7 p.m. Balloting runs until 8 p.m. (and if you’re standing in line at 8 p.m. they’re supposed to abide by the way it works during a regular election: you’re there, so you’re present, and you get to vote.) (Edited to add: that’s true for DFLers but not Republicans! Republican balloting is done at the beginning of the meeting, so get there on time.)

Who Can Caucus?

You do not have to be a registered party member to attend a caucus, but you are supposed to be a person who generally considers themselves a Democrat (to attend the DFL caucus) or Republican (to attend the Republican caucus). When you sign in at a DFL caucus, you are affirming the following: that you live in the precinct; that you will be 18 and eligible to vote by November 8th (in order to cast a preference ballot) or that you will be 16 (in order to participate in caucus business); that you consider yourself a member of the DFL and are not an active member of another political party; that you agree with the principles of the DFL party.

You are not actually registering as a party member by signing in, exactly, but you’re affirming that you consider yourself a Democrat. It’s a somewhat fine distinction.

If you sign in to a Republican caucus, you’re affirming a similar set of things but mentally cross out “DFL” and insert “Republican.”

(For the recent transplants and the non-locals: the DFL is the local Democratic party. It stands for “Democratic Farmer Labor” and is used interchangeably with “Democrats.”)

All that said, there’s no quiz. The only scenario where someone might care is if you are very publicly a member of some other party — for instance, if you hold public office as a member of some other party. (There is actually a procedure for “challenges” but I have gone to these meetings for years and this has never come up. In theory, if someone thinks you’re not there legitimately, they can challenge you, and your precinct caucus will then vote on whether or not to let you stay. In practice, we are talking about Minnesotans. The reanimated zombie of Ronald Reagan could turn up at your precinct caucus and no one would say a word because oh god that would be confrontational.) The one thing they really don’t want anyone doing is caucusing for two parties on the same night. (Note: if you try that trick, you’ll be breaking state law. Don’t do it.)

(The caucus-finder website lists only Republican and DFL caucuses at the moment, but in fact other parties are caucusing that night as well. More info on the the Green Party caucusesLibertarian party caucuses, and I went looking for information on the Constitution Party but they don’t appear to hold caucuses.)

Note that you can totally caucus and cast a presidential preference ballot if you are 17 years old right now but will turn 18 before November 8th! And if you will be 16 by November 8th, you can “participate in caucus business,” which basically means that you can propose and vote on resolutions. (Edited to add: that’s a DFL thing, I think.)

The Presidential Preference Ballot

Assuming this works more or less like it has before, they will give you a ballot when you sign in. They’re pre-printing ballots with candidate names, but they may run out, in which case your ballot will be a piece of blank paper on which you write your candidate’s name. (All reasonable spellings will be counted. However, eight years ago, there were two very confused Republicans who came to my DFL precinct caucus and cast ballots for McCain and Romney, and that will not work. If you want your vote to count, you really need to go to the correct party’s caucus.)

If all you want to do is come, sign in, cast your ballot, and leave, you can totally do that.

Our presidential preference ballots are binding. This is true this year for both the Democrats and the Republicans. (Four years ago, it was not true for the Republicans! But it is now.) Essentially our caucus is a very inconvenient primary (because you have to come during that 90-minute period and the lines are much more of a hassle) with absolutely no absentee balloting.

The DFL has a five-minute video on what to expect at your precinct caucus, which is pretty accurate. The one thing I will note is that precinct caucuses are held every year, and they are much, much less crowded in an off-year.

Be ready for crowds this year. That means that if you’re driving to your location, expect parking hassles. If it’s a cold night, be aware that you may wind up stuck outside for a bit before you can get in.

(Edited to add: Republicans will get ballots as the first agenda item at the meeting, not when they sign in. They can vote and leave, though, if they want.)

Accommodations

If you have a disability and need accommodations to participate in your caucus — for instance, if you can’t stand in line for a long time — you have a couple of options. First, you can contact your precinct chair or the chair of your Senate District. You can find your local contacts on the DFL site. The Republican site only gives people down to the Congressional District level, but I first started trying to get answers to my questions back on New Year’s Eve, and I e-mailed Jim Carson, the GOP party chair for Congressional District 4. I heard back from him within hours. (Don’t get me started on the Democrats. Really, don’t.)

The other option is to contact the campaign of the candidate you’re planning to support and see what they can offer. You specifically want their Minnesota campaign office, because they should have local people who can help you out. Bernie’s got a very, very informative page with lots of people you can call on. Hillary’s contact information is somewhat less helpful: here.

Hillary’s less-than-optimal local organization info is better than anything I could find for any of the Republicans. Trump has a Minnesotans for Trump Twitter account. Cruz has a Facebook page. I couldn’t find anything for Kasich. “Rubio for Minnesota” got me a Wikipedia page for a Timberwolves player and here’s Google’s most helpful information on Bush for Minnesota.

(FYI, I tried a bunch of different searches and still came up dry.)

All caucuses are supposed to be held at wheelchair-accessible locations unless they literally can’t find anything within a reasonable distance of the precinct. Also, under state statutes, you have the right to an ASL interpreter if you need one, Braille materials if you need them, etc., unless they literally can’t find you an interpreter. Let them know in advance what you need.

Other Obstacles to Caucusing

You have the right to take time off work to go to your caucus, though you are required to give your employer 10 days notice.

You are allowed to bring your kids with you to the caucus. They can’t participate unless they’re old enough, but they can be in the room. How well this will work depends heavily on your kids.

If you are out of town that day, if you’re home-bound, if you’re sick … you are S.O.L. There are no absentee ballots for the caucus.

I totally agree that this sucks. I think this is a stupid way to pick a presidential candidate, and we should switch to a primary system. My recollection from the last time this got proposed is that the state doesn’t want to switch because they’d have to pay for a whole extra election in March every four years and that’s a lot of money. Under the caucus system, the parties bear the cost.

Oh yeah, that reminds me!

They will totally hit you up for a donation at your caucus. There’s usually a can that gets passed around and they may even suggest a sum.

This donation is entirely optional. You do not have to contribute. It’s nice if you can: there are costs for holding the event that your party has to bear. But you have the legal right to participate without digging out your wallet.

 

Do you want to be in the room where it happens?

In the presidential primary excitement calendar, Super Tuesday is March 1st. That’s when Minnesota’s political parties hold their caucuses. (Lots of other states, too, but I’m going to focus on Minnesota.)

Both the Democratic and Republican races are interesting enough that I think a lot of people are likely to attend their precinct caucus, many for the first time. So, as a public service, I am writing up information on who can participate in caucuses, how they work, what to expect, and helpful tips. I’ll note that my information is specific to Minnesota —  caucuses do not work the same everywhere.

However, something that should be true everywhere: if you want to participate (in primaries or caucuses) and aren’t sure where to go, how it works, whether you’re eligible, etc., call up the campaign of the person you’re planning to go and support, and ask for information and advice. They should be very motivated to help you!

In Minnesota, you can find your caucus location using this handy online site: http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us/

Note that your caucus location is most likely not the same as the place you go to cast a ballot on election day. You will get to cast a ballot at your precinct caucus, but instead of going to a a polling place, you’re going to go to a meeting.

I’m going to split up the rest of the information across a couple of different posts, so stay tuned.

Gender Nonconforming or Creative

In the news coverage of the controversy at Nova Classical Academy, it’s really clear to me that some people have no earthly idea what “gender nonconforming” is and how it differs from being trans, so let me talk about that, just briefly.

I think most people have at least some idea what it means for a person to be trans. A trans person identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth: if at birth, people thought you were a boy and gave you a male name, and have always used male pronouns for you, but despite this you know yourself to be a girl, you are trans. (If at birth people thought you were a girl and you agree with that assessment, the word for feeling comfortable in that identity is “cis” or “cisgender.” I am cisgender, or a cis woman.)

The best example of a gender-nonconforming or gender-creative kid I can readily point to is C.J., the son of the blogger at Raising My Rainbow. C.J., now eight years old, likes dresses, wears his hair long, wanted a Bitty Baby for Christmas, and prefers things pink or purple or covered in sparkles (or all three). He went through a brief period of requesting that his family call him Rebecca and use female pronouns, then decided this didn’t feel right. His mother, in a recent blog post, wrote about the fact that she’s had people insist that her son is trans, and pressure her to transition him: “My son no longer wants to be a woman when he grows up, like he did when he was four. He didn’t feel comfortable during those days when he was six and we called him Rebecca and used female pronouns. And, after watching his friend transition he declared that he couldn’t imagine being a girl every day.”

One confusing factor here is that a lot of trans kids start out presenting as gender-creative kids, then transition. But if you’ve got a boy who loves to wear sparkly purple dresses and identifies as a boy, that’s also fine. The appropriate pronoun is “he,” the appropriate word is “boy,” and his communities (school, preschool, day care, church…) should take steps as needed to make sure he is safe and respected. It is no more okay for people to tease a boy about wearing a dress than it is for people to tell a little girl, “you shouldn’t play with that lightsaber; Star Wars is for boys.”

It’s a lot rarer that you hear people talk about gender-creative or gender-nonconforming girls, in part because the idea of a “tomboy” is so solidly part of our culture. We have narratives in which tomboys grow up and put away their blue jeans and join the world of ladylike girls — Katie John, Caddie Woodlawn — and narratives where they hold tightly to the empowerment offered by “masculine” behavior — Tomboy, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. While there are many ways that society squashes girls who want to resist the “feminine” box, society in general these days is overall kinder to little girls who want to wear pants and play baseball than it is to little boys who want to wear dresses and play with dolls. Even the 1970s-era empowerment story (and song, in “Free to Be, You and Me”) William’s Doll shows William as reassuringly masculine other than in his desire for a doll, and assures both readers and the other characters in the story that nurturing behavior is still appropriate masculine behavior.

The two books My Princess Boy and Jacob’s New Dress are both about gender-nonconforming boys. The boys in these books are creative and exhuberant dress-wearing boys. (Here’s a really lovely interview with the author of My Princess Boy, by the way.)

In creating safe schools, we need to protect and empower both gender-creative kids and trans kids. (We also need to recognize that protecting a gender-creative kid may mean something different than protecting a trans kid — just as it’s unacceptable for a peer to say to a trans kid, “you are really a boy!” it’s unacceptable for a peer to say to a gender-creative kid, “you are really a girl!”)