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Minnesota’s 2016 election: How to caucus

On March 1, Minnesotans will get together at neighborhood meetings across the state — called precinct caucuses — to vote for president, talk politics and set in motion the machinery that will help Democrats and Republicans pick their candidates for the Legislature and Congress in the fall.

Caucuses are Minnesota’s alternative to presidential primaries.

“The world belongs to those who show up,” former state Sen. Jack Davies once famously said. Voters who show up and cast ballots at caucuses will decide how many Minnesota votes each candidate will get in the two parties’ hotly contested presidential races.

Volunteers also will have a chance to be elected to county, legislative district, congressional district, state and national conventions in the spring and summer.

Here’s what you need to know about how caucuses work:

What is a caucus? How is it different from a primary?

Primaries and caucuses are both ways political parties choose their nominees. But while a primary is a normal election organized by the state, a caucus is technically just a private meeting of party members.

That means that while primary voting goes on all day, a caucus takes place at a particular time in the evening — you either attend the caucus meeting or you don’t. And Republicans and Democrats hold separate caucus meetings instead of everyone voting at the same polling place.

The high-turnout 2008 caucuses saw 214,066 Democrats and 62,828 Republicans vote — slightly less than 10 percent of the registered voters at the time. In that fall’s general election, more than 77 percent of voters cast ballots.

Where do I go to caucus?

Visit http://caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us to find the caucus location for your home.

Do I need to be registered to vote?

No. You need to live in the district, and you have to be eligible to vote by Election Day, Nov. 8. That means many current 17-year-olds can caucus if their birthday is before early November.

All caucus attendees have to do is attest that they’ve voted for their party’s nominee in the past, are intending to vote for their party’s nominee in the future or generally agree with that party. This is intended to stop people making mischief by voting in the other side’s primary. It’s not legally enforceable, but caucus participants can vote to bar someone from voting at the caucus.

Minnesotans don’t register as members of parties, so there’s no need to be formally registered as a Democrat or Republican to participate.

You’re not allowed to participate in more than one party’s caucuses in a year.

What happens at a caucus?

Once caucuses begin at 7 p.m., participants will be able to vote for their party’s presidential nominee in a secret ballot. Unlike a normal primary, though, voting can be accompanied by speeches from fans of different candidates — attempts to persuade any undecided caucus-goers.

By state law, presidential voting has to finish by 8 p.m. Once everyone has voted, results are counted, announced and sent to the state party.

Participants who care only about voting for president can just show up, vote and leave. But more will happen for people with an interest in the political process.

Local caucuses will debate and pass resolutions. More significant, the caucus will also elect delegates for upcoming local conventions who will endorse candidates for the Legislature and Congress. Serving on them is also the only way to get to the state and congressional district conventions — where individuals are chosen as delegates to the parties’ national conventions.

How does this affect who becomes president?

The caucus will determine how many of Minnesota’s delegates go to each candidate. Those delegates formally vote at each party’s national convention in the summer to nominate a candidate for president.

Democrats will assign 77 Minnesota delegates based on the March 1 results, out of a total of 4,763 total national delegates. It also has another 16 unpledged delegates for a total of 93. These unpledged delegates, or “superdelegates,” are party leaders whose votes aren’t determined by the results of the March 1 caucuses.

Minnesota Republicans will assign 38 delegates out of 2,472 total national delegates.

In each party, some of the delegates will be assigned based on the statewide results, while others will be assigned based on the results in each congressional district.

Democrats have 27 at-large delegates who will be assigned based on statewide results. So if Hillary Clinton received 55 percent of the vote, she would earn 55 percent of the at-large delegates, or 15, while Bernie Sanders would receive 12.

Democrats elect another 50 delegates based on congressional districts. These are weighted based on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor vote in recent elections, so the Minneapolis-centered 5th District has nine delegates, while the more conservative 1st, 6th and 7th districts have just five delegates each.

Republicans have 14 at-large delegates assigned based on state results. They have another 24 delegates based on congressional districts: an even three delegates per district.

Republican candidates have to earn at least 10 percent of the vote statewide and in each congressional district to qualify for delegates. Democratic candidates must receive at least 15 percent statewide and in each district, although with only two major candidates, that threshold is less likely to matter.

What if I’m busy during the caucus?

You’re out of luck. Unlike a primary, there are no absentee ballots or early-voting provisions. You have to be at the 7 p.m. meeting to vote.

Under Minnesota law, you have the right to take time off work to attend a caucus, provided you give your employer 10 days’ written notice.

Can I still vote if I get there late?

Registration opens at 6:30 p.m., and the caucuses start at 7. It’s best to be there on time, but arriving after 7 p.m. won’t necessarily prevent you from voting. In DFL caucuses, anyone in line by 8 p.m. will be able to vote. In Republican caucuses, some caucuses might finish their voting before 8 if attendance is small.

What if I’m having difficulty getting to the caucus?

Local party caucuses sometimes offer rides to the meetings. To find local Republican Party contacts, call 651-222-0022. Local DFL contacts can be found on the party’s caucus-finder at https://www.dfl.org/resources/caucus-finder/.

If you’ve decided which candidate you’re supporting, you can also contact that candidate’s campaign. Campaigns will often provide rides to get their supporters to the caucus.

How is this different from the Iowa caucuses?

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are the most famous political caucuses in the country. Minnesota’s caucuses for both parties are similar to how Iowa Republicans conduct their caucuses: a secret ballot with delegates apportioned proportionally.

Minnesotans don’t follow the procedure used by Iowa Democrats, where attendees vote by forming groups in the caucus room and supporters of nonviable candidates can change their votes to rivals with more support.

Is anything different from past caucuses?

On the Democratic side, most of the rules are the same. DFL Chair Ken Martin said the only difference from the 2008 caucuses is that the party is better prepared for very high turnout.

Republicans have made a big change since the 2012 caucuses. Previously, caucuses didn’t actually assign delegates, which were instead determined at the state convention. The caucus vote was for bragging rights. This year, caucus-night votes are binding and will directly affect which Republican gets nominated for president.

What if I’m not a Democrat or Republican?

Most of Minnesota’s minor parties will also hold caucuses to determine their presidential nominees and platforms on March 1, including the Independence Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the Independence Party also holding “online caucuses” from March 2 to March 6.

The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party will not hold caucuses this year.

If you don’t participate in any party’s caucuses, you don’t get any say in parties’ presidential candidate nominations. But participating in caucuses is not a requirement for voting in primaries or voting for president in the general election.

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