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MN Precinct Caucuses: Worth the Trouble?

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Hundreds of thousands turned out in Minnesota for 2016 precinct caucuses. The state moves to a presidential primary in 2020. (Jeremy Noble/FlickR)
Hundreds of thousands turned out in Minnesota for 2016 precinct caucuses. The state moves to a presidential primary in 2020. (Jeremy Noble/FlickR)
 By Laurie SternContact
February 8, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. — On Tuesday night, 30,000 Minnesotans went to precinct caucuses. That's just 1 percent of the roughly 3 million who voted in 2016. So are caucuses good or bad for democracy?

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said it's complicated: Caucuses give neighbors a chance to be heard, and they're also a place that reinforces the two-party system.

"The people who most like the caucuses are those who go - the party leaders,” Schultz said. “They're invested in it. It is a wonderful tool, partly for control, partly for recruitment."

Schultz said Tuesday's turnout was manageable for the parties and an important early sign of strength for candidates in a year when there's no incumbent running for governor. But the number of voters who showed up in 2016 was so massive it actually broke the caucus system.

Starting in 2020, Minnesota will have primaries in presidential-election years.

Schultz said another problem with precinct caucuses is that they're not as accessible as elections are. It can be hard for parents, shift workers or some seniors and disabled people to show up at a particular time on a Tuesday night. For better and worse, caucuses are a vestige of a 19th Century system.

Schultz said he wonders what they'll look like in the future.

"I think they will be a shell of what they are now,” he said. “And what they are now is a shell of what they used to be."

Schultz said parties may want to figure out how to caucus online or incorporate social media.

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