A week before Minnesotans go to the polls to pick their nominees for President, they have a chance to make a series of arguably more consequential decisions: electing delegates at precinct caucuses to support local political candidates and issues.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18 the Civic Engagement Center facilitated a caucus training led by Vivian Ihekoronye ’13, who works as a community organizer at ISAIAH, a local interfaith coalition for racial and economic justice.
The training provided an overview of what first-time caucus-goers should expect. At a caucus, voters gather in houses of worship and schools across the state to endorse candidates and support the issues they care about. The most important of the night comes at the end, when delegates for senate conventions are elected. Those delegates have incredible power in choosing what candidate wins a party endorsement, and on what platform a given party will run on in November.
“Caucuses and conventions are the second most powerful lever we have outside of voting in our democracy in Minnesota,” Ihekoronye said.
In Minnesota, for every election but the presidency, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) and Republican (GOP) parties run primaries endorsing processes alongside official primary elections.
“Those endorsements do not actually determine the nominee, but they provide the candidate with official resources and backing from the party making it more likely that they will be the nominee,” Peter Jarka-Sellers ’20, a paid fellow on the Tina Smith for Minnesota campaign, said.
Jarka-Sellers would know. In addition to helping coordinate a Caucus for Climate initiative that hopes to bring 10,000 people who want action for climate justice into the caucus process, he was a member of an uncommitted climate action delegation at the 2018 DFL State Convention.
Jarka-Sellers was a fellow on then-candidate Tim Walz’s gubernatorial campaign and caucused for him at the convention. Walz lost the endorsement to Rep. Erin Murphy, but went on to win the primary and the Governor’s race that November.
The importance of winning a party endorsement means that candidates badly want to persuade delegates to back them at conventions, and will engage in extensive personal lobbying efforts to earn their support.
“Becoming a delegate puts you in a position to be one of the most powerful people in Minnesota politics,” Ihekoronye said.
In many ways, caucuses resemble a raucous town meeting, where people who share values and beliefs can come together and build community.
Although caucuses can allow people to exercise agency as political actors, they are inherently exclusive, shutting people out of the process who cannot take several hours on a Tuesday night to go to a school gymnasium and debate issues.
The caucuses also utilize a complex series of meeting rules that date back to the 19th century, which can be confusing for the uninitiated.
“If someone isn’t aware [of the meeting rules] they can go in thinking, ‘I don’t know how to talk like this, why are they running this meeting this way, I’m not familiar with this, maybe I don’t deserve to be here,’” Ihekoronye said.
During the training, Ihekoronye tried to dispel some of that confusion. She gave an overview of ISAIAH and her work at the organization before calling on attendees to become delegates.
Emmanuel Keppel ’23 attended the CEC training and plans to caucus for the DFL next week.
“I think people don’t pay enough attention to local politics in general,” he said. “It’s a really good opportunity to shape how the Minnesota Democratic [Farmer Labor] Party goes forward in terms of policy and pursuing a bold agenda on issues like climate change, immigration and paid family leave.”
For students living on campus, the DFL caucus will take place at St. Paul Central High School, while the GOP caucus is hosted by Ramsey Middle School.
CEC Policy & Justice Issue Area Coordinator Margaret Breen ’20 announced that the CEC will drive DFL caucus-goers over to the school, and asked that people who want rides arrive at Davis Court by 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The caucus begins at 7 p.m., and to participate people must arrive on time.
“The idea is we’ll just be meeting here and shuttling people,” Breen said.
Despite the best efforts of the CEC, caucus turnout is expected to be very low. That’s due in part to the national political climate, and that Minnesota is holding a presidential primary election for the first time since 1992. With the shift from caucus to primary at the presidential level has come significant confusion among voters over whether the caucuses are still taking place.
“I worry that people will be so disheartened with what’s happening nationally that they will miss the fact that in Minnesota we are definitely on track to pass some of the boldest racial and economic justice in the country,” Ihekoronye said.