Editorial: Your caucus vote could change U.S. history

The 2016 presidential race is barely under way, and it already appears to be different than most Americans have experienced in their lifetimes. Voters are showing a willingness to rock the status quo like never before.

In just over a week, Minnesotans will get their chance to join in the process. Precinct caucuses will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, throughout the state.

Over the years, only a small percentage of Minnesotans have chosen to participate in the process. The caucuses are used to conduct party business, such as electing delegates to the county and legislative district conventions and passing resolutions.

However, the caucuses have evolved over time, and now both the Democrats and Republicans hold presidential preference straw polls. The result of that straw poll will determine how many Minnesota delegates to the national presidential nominating conventions this summer will support each candidate.

It’s important to understand that it’s your choice whether you want to participate in party activities. If you don’t, you can simply show up at the caucus, cast your vote in the straw poll and leave. In a way, the straw polls have become a primary wrapped around a caucus.

The two parties operate somewhat differently, so what follows is a brief synopsis of how the national delegates will be selected:

Democrats

Minnesota has 93 delegates to the national Democratic convention.

Of those 93, 16 so-called “Superdelegates” will attend unpledged to any candidate. These include the state’s members of the Democratic National Committee,  all DFL members of the U.S. Congress, Gov. Mark Dayton and a “Distinguished Party Leader,” meaning former vice president and presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

Of the remaining 77 delegates, 50 will be chosen by the straw poll results in each congressional district. Each district is allocated delegates based on the number of Democratic votes in the last presidential and gubernatorial elections combined. The 1st District will have five delegates, the 2nd District six, the 3rd District seven, the 4th District seven, the 5th District nine, the Sixth District five, the Seventh District five and the 8th District six.

Among those districts with an odd number of delegates, the 1st, 3rd and 4th districts will choose one more man than woman and the 5th, 6th and 7th districts will each have one more woman than man.

To receive any delegates, either at the congressional district level or statewide, a candidate must garner at least 15 percent of the vote.

Those DFLers who vote in the straw poll will not only have a chance to vote for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, they also can write-in their own candidate or cast a vote for “Uncommitted.”

For “Uncommitted” to receive any delegates, however, at least 15 percent of the vote would have to be cast for “Uncommitted.”

Of the remaining 27 delegates, 10 will be chosen from among prominent party leaders such as the other statewide office holders like the attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor, DFL legislative leaders, big city mayors, etc. However, they would have to announce their support for a candidate beforehand.

The final 17 delegates will be selected at the state convention, based on the statewide straw poll.

The delegates are bound until such time as their candidate drops out.

Republicans

Four years ago, Rick Santorum won the Republican straw poll on caucus night, but Ron Paul ended up with most of the national delegates. That’s because the caucus was held earlier than this year, outside of the national party’s rules that made the straw poll binding.

This year is different because the caucus is within the time frame set by the national party.

The Republican National Convention has fewer delegates than the Democratic National Convention, so the Minnesota GOP will have only 38 delegates.

Each congressional district convention will elect three delegates, based on the straw poll results in that district. Of the other 14, 11 will be chosen at the state convention based on the statewide straw poll result. The state party chair, state national committeeman and national committeewoman will be delegates automatically.

One of the big differences in how the two parties select delegates is that the Republican threshhold to get any delegates is only 10 percent. In New Hampshire, five different GOP candidates achieved that level.

As with the DFL, the delegates are allocated proportionally based on the straw poll. With only three seats per congressional district, even 10 percent may not be enough to win a delegate in such a splintered field.

Another difference is that the Republican delegates are bound to a candidate only for the first ballot. After that, they are free to switch.

If a delegate’s candidate drops out of the race before the convention, the delegate can support anyone. If the candidate then decides to get back in the race, the delegate is bound on the first ballot afterward.

If you want to be a national delegate or even just be more involved in one party or the other, the precinct caucus is the best place to start. But even if you don’t want to participate beyond voting, the precinct caucus straw poll is the one place where all Minnesotans can have a say in who the candidates for president will be. We urge you  to participate.

This is an opinion of the ECM Editorial Board.