Fifty years ago, unhappiness with a Democratic National Convention that nominated a presidential candidate who had not entered a single primary election — Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota — triggered a cascade of grass-roots-empowering changes in the way both of the nation’s major parties choose nominees.
The procedural changes enacted last month by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) might not be as sweeping as the overhaul of that era. But they deserve notice by both of Minnesota’s parties. Both parties’ state and congressional candidate selection processes could use more of the transparency and inclusivity that the latest DNC changes and recommendations would bring.
A move to limit the power of “superdelegates,” the party officials who are automatically seated as delegates to Democratic conventions, was the headliner among the revisions adopted by the party’s governing body. Its prime movers included Minnesota DFL chair Ken Martin, who chairs the Democratic state chairs association.
The change comes close to reversing a mid-1980s reform that was intended to give the party’s establishment more control over presidential picks. It would no longer allow superdelegates — who comprised about 15 percent of all national convention delegates in 2016 — to vote on the first ballot in a contested presidential race.
The move’s aim is to give rank-and-file participants in caucuses and primaries more clout. It springs from criticism that in 2016, superdelegates’ preference for Hillary Clinton stacked the deck for her against Bernie Sanders, who outpolled Clinton in Minnesota and in 22 other states.
The superdelegate change has little application to the Republican Party. But what the DNC had to say about primaries and caucuses does. Where possible, the new DNC policy says, states should employ government-run primaries to allocate their convention delegates’ presidential picks, taking advantage of the security, accessibility and transparency that government-run elections afford.
This state appears to have anticipated that change. Minnesota lawmakers have already made the switch from caucuses to a primary for presidential selection in 2020. Minnesota already allows for election-day registration, as the DNC recommends.
But barring more procedural revisions, this state’s major parties will still employ caucuses in 2020 at the start of their endorsement processes for other races, which that year will include one U.S. Senate seat, the U.S. House and the entire Legislature. And those caucuses would benefit from what the DNC recommended: Caucuses should allow for absentee voting. And they should require the use of standardized paper ballots to allow for a recount in the event of a close tally.
Those are sensible and overdue changes. They would address a serious flaw in Minnesota’s caucus system: It’s too exclusive. Many people cannot readily take part in a neighborhood meeting on a wintry Tuesday night — night-shift workers, students, the elderly, the disabled, caregivers of the young and old. The haphazard nature of some caucuses has also weakened confidence in their results. Reports of ballots being cast on Post-it notes were registered in 2008 and 2016.
Secretary of State Steve Simon told a State Fair audience at the Star Tribune booth last Thursday that he supports adding an absentee-ballot option to balloting at precinct caucuses. But the authority to make that move does not lie with him or the Legislature, he noted.
Precinct caucuses are party-run affairs, Simon said. The nudge from one major party’s national governing body should spur both of Minnesota’s state parties to consider adding absentee ballots and more standardized voting procedures to the caucus experience in 2020.