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Tom West: What's wrong with the caucuses? Plenty

Tuesday, Minnesota political types will haul out the same old outdated apparatus. They want to get people involved in the political process. Once again, the major parties intend to hold caucuses in each precinct. Once again, about 2 percent of el...

Tuesday, Minnesota political types will haul out the same old outdated apparatus. They want to get people involved in the political process. Once again, the major parties intend to hold caucuses in each precinct. Once again, about 2 percent of eligible voters will show up.
That the parties refuse to adapt to the changing times is quaint. However, this year's caucuses border on the bizarre.
That's because the 2000 census will cause the boundaries of each legislative and congressional district in the state to be re-drawn. Even though the Democrats and Republicans have had the numbers since last spring, they have not been able to agree on new boundaries.
Thus, the redistricting plan will most likely be done by a panel of five state judges. The judges have been running around the state holding hearings.
The judges have given the Legislature until March 20 to get its act together. Fat chance of that. Republicans control the House of Representatives; Democrats hold sway in the Senate. If one party were in control, it could stick it to the other. However, with the power split, the new boundaries by necessity are going to affect some incumbents of both parties negatively. They can't bring themselves to make the hard choices, so they most likely will let the judges do it for them.
To get back to Tuesday then, people who attend the caucuses won't know what district they are in. The 7th District DFL is planning on holding its convention immediately after the caucus, but that is putting the cart way before the horse.
By the time the judges get done, the "7th District" may be in southwestern Minnesota. And instead of carving up Duluth between two state Senate districts as it is today, it could be in as many as four, or in as few as one. The people gathering Tuesday won't know which neighborhoods or delegates will be in their district and which won't.
All of this says volumes about what Minnesotans think of precinct caucuses.
If they were truly important, the Legislature would have either completed its redistricting task or it would have postponed the caucuses until the lines were drawn.
The fact is that precinct caucuses run counter to the trend that Harvard professor Robert Putnam spoke about in Duluth last spring. Putnam, author of the book "Bowling Alone," outlined the cocooning trend in America, noting that we no longer join organizations the way we once did.
One reason for that is because we are assaulted all day long with human interaction through our jobs. Fifty years ago, farming was the primary occupation, and it was, and still is, primarily a solitary job. People joined groups and turned out for events like precinct caucuses in order to feed their need to be around other people.
Then came the '60s. Suddenly, everybody had a TV to entertain themselves in the evening. Suddenly, women entered the work force in droves so that mothers were no longer isolated at home all day and looking forward to getting out in the evening. Suddenly, automation made farms larger and more productive, and farmers, once our dominant occupation, became only a small fraction of our work force.
And then, with all those social changes occurring, two major issues, Vietnam and abortion, caused both major parties to engage in intramural arguments that hardly anybody enjoyed except the zealots. Neither party could achieve consensus on those two issues. Thus, caucuses became a place not to come together with like-minded individuals, but a place to do battle with ideologues.
Is it any wonder that caucus attendance has been on a steady decline ever since?
In most states, the caucus system of endorsing candidates has been dumped in favor of a primary system. In Minnesota, the caucus system still endorses, but any candidate with name recognition ignores the result. Does anybody still remember Jerry Janezich? Or for that matter Donald Fraser, Warren Spannaus or Allen Quist? All were endorsed for either U.S. senator or governor, and all were trounced in the primary. In 1994, in fact, the entire statewide Republican slate of endorsees, except Rod Grams, lost in the primary.
So why does the system continue to exist? Because all of the people who could do something to change the system, have been "winners" under the caucus system. Now they sit in the Legislature or Congress. Why rock the boat?
Well, for one reason, voter participation continues to decline as more people tune out the political process. This is a direct threat to our democracy and the legitimacy of our government.
What should be done to increase participation? Change the caucus system. One way would be to hold caucuses online so people could stay at home and participate by computer. For those people who don't have home computers, a caucus could be set up in a public library or school since most of them have computer access to the Internet.
Another possibility would be to have a double primary system. Hold the first one in June and declare any candidate who receives at least 50 percent of a party's vote the party endorsee. In those races where no one receives 50 percent, send the top two vote-getters to a run-off primary in September.
Either alternative would virtually guarantee greater participation than the outdated precinct caucus system.
Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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