After high turnout, renewed calls to replace caucus system

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Opponents of Minnesota's precinct caucus system are renewing calls to do away with the state's participation-intensive voting process after hundreds of thousands of residents crammed into gymnasiums and classrooms for Tuesday night's caucuses.

Caucus voters came out in droves on Super Tuesday to support their preferred presidential candidates. Republicans set turnout records; Democrats predicted they had their second-highest showing in state history.

The high turnout led to crowded caucus sites, long lines and a revived debate over whether it's time for Minnesota to swap out its caucus system for the more-common — and less complex — presidential primary. Unlike a primary, where residents simply vote for their chosen candidate, a caucus is a community event in which people debate the merits of their chosen candidates before voting.

For decades, opponents of caucuses have argued the insider nature of the system discourages the average citizen from voting and that in years of high turnout, volunteers and facilities can become overwhelmed.

"When turnout is super low, the caucus system works fine," said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Republican from Farmington. "When more participate, the system breaks down."

Garofalo announced Tuesday night that he plans to introduce a measure next week that would replace the caucus system in favor of a presidential primary. He said now is the time to push for the switch, saying that he thought last night "was worse than it's ever been."

At the Maple Grove Middle School in that northwest Minneapolis suburb on Tuesday, hundreds of voters began pouring in before the Republican caucus registration began and more than 2,500 eventually voted. Some people showed up at the door only to leave after learning that, unlike a primary, they would have to wait more than an hour to cast their vote.

In Eden Prairie, organizer Steve Smith said more than 2,000 people voted in their Republican caucuses, shattering their previous record of 900. But he estimated that between 500 and 1,000 more people would have participated if not for severe traffic congestion and a lack of parking. Smith said would-be voters told him it took them more than an hour to drive just a few miles to the Eden Prairie High School only to find out that they could not vote because their precinct had already cast their ballots.

"It was a great night, with so many people getting involved on both sides," he said, "but logistically it was just not a success."

Smith, who co-chairs his local Senate district, said he would personally prefer a primary system, which would relieve congestion and give voters more flexibility.

Parties and caucus supporters have long said that the caucus system allows ordinary citizens an entry point into the political process and benefits grass-roots politics. The debate over whether to switch to a presidential primary returns nearly every four years.

Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said he sees the benefits of a primary system, including increased voter turnout and allowing people to vote absentee and throughout the day.

"There's no doubt that more people would have their voices heard," he said.

Still, Martin said Wednesday that he "bristles" at the thought of removing Minnesota's caucus system that has helped political newcomers such as U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone build grass-roots support by beginning to organize at the caucus level.

He said without the current caucus system, it's possible very few ordinary people would get involved in politics and organize at the ground level. He said it's worth considering changes that can make the caucus system more inclusive while still keeping it intact.

In Colorado, Democrats and Republicans tentatively agreed Wednesday to push for a presidential primary vote in 2020 to allow more people to participate. The news follows issues with overcrowding at Colorado's Democratic caucuses and some Republicans who were angry that their caucuses didn't include a presidential straw poll.

While parties can change certain aspects of caucuses, they can't do away with them — that's up to the Legislature. Garofalo said he's "cautiously optimistic" that there's bipartisan support for such a change.

"This is the best time to do it," he said, "while the problems of last night are still fresh in our minds."