Crowded caucuses spark calls for changesby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
A day after Minnesota's record-shattering turnout for the Republican and DFL precinct caucuses, leaders of both parties remained amazed at the numbers and pleased with the high interest in this year's presidential contest. DFL participants topped 230,000, four times as high as the last presidential year. The GOP turnout was above 70,000. But while many first-time caucus goers left their neighborhood meetings energized, others were turned off by a system they view as unorganized and unfair.
St. Paul, Minn. — Super Tuesday wasn't so super for many first-time participants at Minnesota precinct caucuses. Parking lots were packed, lines were long and meeting rooms were overflowing. Joyce Truitt of Rochester described her precinct caucus experience as confusing.
"There was a terrible line of cars," she said. "And when we got inside, there were no signs anywhere to tell us where to go or what to do. So we just had to ask people. We got in line, found out what room we were to go to. When we got to the room there was nothing to indicate we were in the right place. We had to sort of guess that we had been given the right information. Then they didn't have enough ballots."
At age 69, Truitt made her first trip to a DFL caucus to vote for Hillary Clinton in the party's binding presidential preference ballot. But she's now concerned that many like-minded seniors simply walked away from the crowded caucus without voting.
"You would have to be a very strong person to persevere last night and actually go in and vote," she said.
Minnesota's precinct caucuses are organized for and by the political parties. State election officials report the results of the presidential preference voting but are otherwise not involved in the process.
Democrat Barack Obama outpolled Hillary Clinton 2-to-1 among Democratic caucus-goers.
Another Clinton supporter, Brian Corrodi of Minneapolis, said he thinks the enthusiasm for Obama crossed the line at his precinct caucus. Corrodi said the event appeared to be more of an Obama rally than a DFL caucus.
"When you go to place and vote, and everyone has an Obama sticker and a shirt and there are signs all over the place and you write your name on a paper ballot, who's assuring, who's counting these ballots?" he asked. "These are kind of the questions I want to ask the DFL party. Who's counting these votes?"
"I have heard those complaints, but I have not heard anything about the process being compromised. I have not heard people suggest that there were people voting improperly or counting the votes improperly," said Minnesota DFL chair Brian Melendez.
He said caucus tellers count the ballots and announce the results in the same rooms where they were cast. Melendez said he's confident the results were accurate. He's less confident about the capacity of the caucus system.
"There's only so much that you can do using all volunteers and limited meeting space and parking space within a 90 minute window," he said. "We can easily process the 30,000 people that came out in 2006. We can probably even deal with 100,000 pretty comfortably. But with 200,000, 90 minutes just is not enough to do it."
Republican caucuses also felt the strain of record turnout. Mitt Romney won the Republican non-binding presidential straw poll. At Expo Elementary School in St. Paul, people started lining up an hour early. The turnout topped 500 at a GOP location that typically attracts 100.
Caucus organizer Leslie Wilcox said the main complaint came from people who wanted to vote for president and leave.
"We have to actually meet as a caucus, and it takes some time to elect a chair and then you can vote," she said. "It's not just a full out the ballot kind of thing. Caucuses are different than primaries, and I think people had a hard time understanding that."
Many Republicans also waited in long lines to get into their caucuses. State GOP chairman Ron Carey says party leaders will meet later this month to discuss ways to improve the system.
"There are some logistical lessons that I think we want to pass along for future caucuses where we anticipate having high turnout," he said. "We may want to have a different sign-in process. That seemed to be the number one issue as far as having some delays in the processing of people through the lines and getting the evening moving forward."
The fallout from the precinct caucuses is prompting some state lawmakers to recommend switching to a presidential primary.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she will introduce a bill for a primary. Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, has a similar bill in the House. But he said he also wants to keep the caucuses intact.
"We just want to make sure that that fantastic turnout, which is a wonderful thing to behold, does not have the unintended consequence of overwhelming the volunteers that have to handle it," he said. "And the unintended consequence of turning people off and turning people away."
Republican Party Chairman Carey opposes a presidential primary. He said it would favor candidates with the financial resources who can fill the airwaves with ads.
Republicans say their previous record attendance at caucuses was 58,000 in 1988. Democrats say their previous record was approximately 80,000 in both 1968 and 1972.
- All Things Considered, 02/06/2008, 5:20 p.m.