In the United States, a precinct caucus is the smallest unit of politics one can participate in – it’s the beginning of the beginning.
Last night, the Republican and Democrat caucuses took place in little class and conference rooms all over the state of Minnesota. I have always considered myself an independent and in the distant past, voted for whatever candidate I felt would be best. These days, moderate Republicans are like unicorns and independent parties keep putting up fringe operators at best, so last night I went blue and attended my local precinct caucus for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (Democrats in Minnesota).
In a fit of pique after the 2016 election, I had joined the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV). They focus on voting rights and community issues, which appealed to my sense of egalitarianism (wasted in the current environment, but old habits die hard). I was dipping my toes into the pool of activism. I’d always been politically informed, a nerd who read The Economist and Foreign Affairs, but joining a march or going door-to-door made me shrink away in horror. And meetings give me a shiver of revulsion.
Current events being what they are and simply being pissed off enough to overcome my personal inclinations, I typed up the voting rights resolutions (items you put forward to be added to the party platform) supported by the LWV and packed myself off to the precinct caucus.
The last time I attended any caucus was about 20+ years ago, while I was attending the University of Iowa. I was working three jobs and trying to get through college. I’d gotten out of the Army with some vestiges of Republicanism, but had given up religion and was turned off by the conservative morality police, so I attended a Democratic caucus down the street from my apartment. Like most of college, I have little recollection of the proceedings.
As an introvert, I have to prepare myself for events. I’m usually filled with nervous anxiety, don’t sleep well the night before, and find myself issuing mental commands: Breathe. Relax your shoulders. And then the reassurances: It’s only two hours. It will be fine. In the case of this precinct caucus, it wasn’t just a case of showing up and listening. I had to speak as well.
My suburb has 14,000 registered voters divided into eight precincts. Statewide, Minnesota has a slight majority of Democrats over Republicans, so statistically, my precinct caucus should represent around 800 Democrats. 15 people showed up. Low-level participation during a midterm year is common to both parties. A woman told me in 2016 that you could barely move through the hallways, it was so packed.
The 15 people ranged from 30-80 in age, all of us having the blotchy pale color of a six-month Minnesota winter. We were ensconced in puffy clothes that made us all blobbish, wearing shoes with traces of road salt on them. This is the red carpet of an involved citizenry. Due to the small number, we were all automatically delegates to the next meeting. Yay?
We followed the rules of order and an agenda, while being interrupted by politicians popping in to give their mini stump speeches. They all seemed a little breathless, as if they were attempting to go to every one of Minnesota’s 4,117 voting precincts.
The first major bit of business was doing a straw poll for gubernatorial candidates, since ours is on the ballot in the fall. I was one of two uncommitted voters in the room. It’s early in the process for me to determine who I’d support. And I simply hadn’t done the research.
When it came to resolutions, I had five. There were only two others from the rest of the room. One was from an elderly gentleman who shook slightly as he spoke – he wanted a moratorium on factory farms. I knew that there were lobbies in our surrounding states to do the same, due to the health issues and the pollution of waterways. His resolution passed.
I went through three voting rights resolutions: automatic registration with the driver’s license (an opt out system rather than the current opt in), pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-old voters (raises early voter participation), early voting using actual ballots and not absentee ballots (saves money and less confusing to voter). Then two government accountability resolutions: no more omnibus bills in the state senate and house, must follow single subject line rule (with the exception of major finance bills which have a lot of moving parts) and transparency in electioneering communications (currently if ads don’t say “Vote for” or “Defeat” in Minnesota, advertisers don’t have to identify themselves).
All my resolutions passed unanimously. A slight victory, since these resolutions will have to go through many more filters before having a shot at making it into the state’s party platform, much less any actual legislation in the very far future.
The last resolution was done on the fly by a man hastily filling in the form. He was talking about school referendums and I didn’t understand what exactly his resolution was, despite asking for clarification. Since I did not have the opportunity to do any research, I abstained from the vote. It, whatever it was, still passed. Easy crowd.
I walked into the caucus with apprehension, but I walked out as the precinct chair, a delegate, and an election judge. I am reminded of a magnet on the fridge that a friend gave me: Stop me before I volunteer again. I am an introvert, but I’m also tired of the loudmouths having all the power. Our system suffers when the extroverts and impulsive blabbers dominate.
It was a big question among my introvert friends last year. How can I make a difference without being loud? I remember a sign that showed up at marches: “So bad, even introverts are here.” The world has become so hostile and angry that people like me want to retract our limbs into our shells. But now is simply not the time. Better to counter the impulsiveness of shameless self-promoters. Just breathe, relax your shoulders, and step into the world, resolutions in hand.