Minnesota held its presidential caucuses Tuesday night – on Super Tuesday. I was pretty excited about fulfilling my civic duty, and being part of this country’s biggest primary election day.
Like, really excited.
I enjoy politics. I like knowing what’s going on in the world and I care about how this country and the community around me are run. Nearly every aspect of our lives is in some way influenced by the decisions of our elected leaders. It’s important to know why and how. It’s important to have a say in these decisions. At the risk of sounding like your civics teacher, voting is a privilege. It’s a right that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
My maternal grandmother was born in 1919, the year before the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained the right to vote. Think about that. It wasn’t very long ago – two generations – that I, by virtue of my genitalia, would have been precluded from voting. And that fact doesn’t even begin to shed light upon the many groups of people who – around the world and throughout our nation’s history – have been denied the vote because of the color of their skin, social class or country of origin.
I exercise my right to choose my leaders and vote on issues that affect my life, with pride.
Sure, politics and political discourse can be frustrating and ridiculous. Congress doesn’t get anything done and the candidates just tell us what we want to hear. But – to be honest – I enjoy a good political train wreck and the spectacle of it all. It’s entertaining.
And somehow I find a way to hold in real and honest tension my political idealism with a skeptical view of the pageantry and squabbles of politics.
This was my first time caucusing. In fact, I don’t have much experience going to the polls at all. Throughout college and graduate school I maintained my Nebraska residency and thus voted absentee. I’ve been looking forward to caucus night since last June when Donald Trump descending that escalator, announced his campaign for the presidency and then said he would build a wall along the Mexico border to keep out the rapists and murderers.
By definition a caucus is a meeting of the members of a political party. In reality it was a less organized, more chaotic primary election followed by a discussion of party business and platforms. The caucusing process varies by state, political party and even precinct.
I caucused for the DFL, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The DFL is affiliated with the Democratic Party. It is one of only two state Democratic party affiliates – the other being North Dakota – with a different name than the national party.
In my excitement, I resolved to document my caucus experience.
Hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot of the elementary school, waiting to cast their vote.
On Tuesday night I walked the few blocks from our apartment to my caucus location – an elementary school. It was dark and the neighborhood was buzzing with more activity than usual. I arrived at the school 25 minutes early. Two separate DFL caucuses were held at the school that night – one in the gym and one in the cafeteria. Hundreds of people stood in long lines in the parking lot. A few volunteers shouted over the winding crowds, attempting to guide people into the correct line based on their address.
It was cold outside – about 20 degrees – but the atmosphere energetic. I chatted with the girl standing behind me. The crowd seemed representative of my urban neighborhood – millennial and white. I surmised from the conversations and paraphernalia around me, that many people had come out to support Bernie Sanders. The final vote tally would confirm these suspicions.
I stood outside for about a half hour, rocking back and forth to stay warm. I waited another ten minutes inside the gymnasium.
Waiting inside the gym to cast our caucus vote. Note the die-hard Minnesotan who wore sandals on this frigid night.
I wasn’t alone in my inexperience. Many of the people around me in line had never caucused before either. We were enthusiastic, but not quite sure what we were doing. No one had given us instructions or told us what would happen when we got to the front of the line. We were ready to stand up for our candidates, but the whole process was fairly unclear.
The artwork of elementary school children lined the walls as I waited to cast my vote. It was a happy and poignant reminder that voting is a civic duty and an act of hope. In its most idealistic sense, voting is about the common good and ensuring the well-being of future generations.
When I reached the front of the line it dissolved into a confusing and unorganized clump of people. Inside a small hallway, volunteers spoke loudly over the crowd.
“If you’re already registered to vote, go to this end of the table. If you’re not, go to that end.”
People stood around the table asking questions. Others wandered through the hallway without an obvious purpose.
The first step in casting a caucus vote is verifying your identity.
I stepped up to the table and I found my name on the electoral roll. I signed next it – confirming my identity, address and that I generally agree with the party’s principles.
Verifying that I am registered to vote.
With no intention of starting a debate or even a discussion of political ideologies, here is my ballot:
Voting was a very open, informal process. I was handed this small piece of paper. After digging around in my purse for a pen and using a nearby wall as flat surface, I selected my candidate. I dropped my ballot in a hastily decorated cardboard box.
After casting my vote, a volunteer directed me back into the gym.
The gym was small. It’s lacquered wooden floor was covered in bright lines and numbers. Posters lauding the merits self-control and kindness hung on the wall. The scene brought back happy memories of elementary school and my favorite subject – P.E.
Of the 525 people who voted in my caucus, about 10 percent stuck around to participate in the actual caucusing. Most voted and left – a completely valid and acceptable option.
Waiting for the caucusing to begin.
Brown folding chairs, set up in no apparent pattern or method of organization, filled one end of the gym.
Once most of the chairs were occupied, a woman stood up and welcomed us to the caucus. She began by reading a note from the DFL Party Chair. Her voice was un-amplified and difficult to hear over the chatter and movement of the people at the other end of the gym who were still in line waiting to cast their ballot. She strained to be louder as she outlined how the caucus would proceed and highlighted the DFL’s Affirmative Action and Inclusion Statement.
A donation bucket was passed.
“All proceeds support the DFL party. We need to pay the janitorial staff who’ll clean up after us tonight.”
I chatted with the people sitting next to me. The caucus participants were much older – on average – than the people who had been waiting outside to vote.
A candidate for the School Board spoke briefly. He was spry and passionate. His wife and son helped him hand out campaign fliers on their way out.
The woman leading the caucus asked for volunteers to fill the roles of secretary, chair and vice chair of our DFL precinct. She also needed delegates to the Minneapolis DFL convention. She didn’t offer a detailed explanation of these roles and few people were stepping forward. There weren’t any explicit requirements or background checks. You didn’t even have to give your name prior to volunteering. It was all very informal.
And that’s how I became a DFL Precinct Chair.
Ten minutes after being elected to this position I was handed a description of my duties. I’ll let you know how it all plays out.
Resolutions are discussed.
A majority of the caucus was devoted to the reviewing and voting upon of resolutions. Anyone can bring, present and discuss a resolution during a caucus. It’s an opportunity to voice concerns and put issues on the party’s agenda.
One by one people stood in front of the group and presented their resolutions. Most read prepared statements. Their resolutions were formal and prescriptive policy proposals, but they were also somewhat ceremonial – a formality. Their resolutions were recognized, documented and will be brought to the city party convention, yes. But they won’t in and of themselves bring about new laws or ordinances (see here for more info). These resolutions are the kernel out of which real policy change could occur. But right now they are just the seed of an idea – a suggestion of what the party should be concerned with and work toward.
There is something really neat about opinions and issues being voiced in this way. It’s grassroots politics in it’s purest form. It’s politics with a little “p” – and it’s inspiring. Sure, there were some wacky and unattainable policy proposals presented on Tuesday night. But at their core, all of these resolutions were set forth with a sincere desire to better our world.
The people who presented resolutions were diverse in age, race and gender – but they were analogous in passion. They were all trying to save our environment or make our communities strong, our schools better and the world a more just and honest place.
One grey-haired gentleman in particular possessed an exquisite fervor and dedication toward the resolution process. Over the course of the evening he presented four separate policy proposals.
After each resolution was read, the moderator put it up for a simple yea or nay vote. The results – whether the resolution had passed or failed – were recorded for party records. Apart from questions of clarification, there wasn’t much by way of discussion of these resolutions. Their purpose was to be presented and acknowledged, not scrutinized or debated.
The general tone of the caucus was informal and friendly. Bernie and Hillary supporters talked freely and with an unspoken acknowledgement that their differences are far smaller and less significant than the issues that unite them. We’re all on the same team – was the underlying sentiment of the night.
After all resolutions were read and voted upon, volunteer delegates for the DFL Senate District Convention were selected. The evening ended without a formal farewell. People lingered, waited in line to sign up for party mailing lists, chatted with one another and eventually surmised that all formal business was finished. As the folding chairs were being re-stacked and people mingled, the vote tally was read. A few cheers rose up.
The caucus wraps up.
Caucusing was fun. I felt like I was a part of something important. I felt connected to my community and involved – in a small way – in the presidential election and the national discussion of politics. Caucusing is an easy and open way to get involved in your local political party and with the issues affecting your neighborhood and state. Although its voting process was less organized and clear than a traditional primary election, the caucus format fosters transparency and true democracy.
While I care deeply about the issues and have a favored candidate, I’ll admit that my love of politics and the political process is not bound up with a particular ideology. I didn’t caucus because of my love for the Democratic party. I caucused because I’m a citizen of the United States and it is my right and privilege to vote.
I want Hillary to win the presidency and I have clear opinions about the political issues of the day – don’t get me wrong. But my enthusiasm for this election flows from a respect for the democratic process. It comes from a passion for being informed and a desire to have a say in how my life and the world around me are governed.
And so, I guess the point of this incredibly long post is – you should vote. Get involved in the political process and participate in your community’s governance.
Being political doesn’t mean you are loud, angry, annoying or rude. It doesn’t mean you share your opinions on Facebook or only spend time with people that agree with your political stances. Getting involved in politics means caring and being curious enough to be informed and engaged. The challenge of politics is finding a way to balance cynicism with hope and a belief in the common good.
Vote. Don’t vote for Donald Trump – but vote.
I’d be interested to hear about your caucus experience. Tell me in the comments.