The recent chaos in Iowa after their precinct caucuses makes many folks wonder, just what the heck is a caucus anyway? And many follow that up by saying, it’s a good thing we don’t do that in Minnesota anymore.

Everyone gets a pass on this one. Even well-educated and informed people have no clue how a caucus works, and many do not know that yes, indeed, Minnesotans will gather for their biennial precinct caucuses on Tuesday evening, Feb. 25.

Step back four years to the 2016 February precinct caucuses. Remember massive traffic jams around caucus locations? People couldn’t find a place to park, there wasn’t enough room for everyone to squeeze into the caucus locations and everyone was very cranky by the end of the night.

Many of us wanted to attend the caucus so we could cast a preference ballot for president. Both Republicans and Democrats had a lot at stake and many candidates to choose from. A caucus format is just not set up to handle large crowds, and simple slips of paper that need to be hand-counted do not make great ballots. It was a mess.

Fast forward to Iowa a few weeks ago. It was a mess: Too many people, too few workers, too small of rooms and a really lousy app that was supposed to make up for the other shortcomings.

After 2016, our political leaders agreed (and they don’t agree on much!) that a better system was needed. So, Minnesota joined the rest of the nation in having a presidential primary election. This election would use existing precinct locations and functioning voting machines, and we’d have it on March 3, 2020. That date is known as Super Tuesday, with primaries taking place in 14 states. It will be a very big make-or-break for that long list of Democrats still in the race.

However, the presidential vote is actually NOT the main reason that caucuses exist. The caucus is probably the purest form of democracy in action. Neighbors come together to discuss issues, select candidates and delegates for the next level of the year’s political process.

So just how does a caucus work? First, the word “precinct” is essential. These meetings start at the precinct level, meaning you head to the location where your caucus is held and find the room or corner for your voting precinct. In big suburbs, there might be 20 or 30 precincts, each meeting in a separate room in the high school. In small towns, there might just be one precinct for the whole municipality.

Caucuses ARE partisan. You go to the caucus that you identify with. So, you head into the high school and look for your precinct number and head to the one for the DFL or Republicans. Then, there you are in a room with your neighbors, but only the neighbors of your party. This can be a shocker sometimes. Crazy neighbor Warren B. Sorenson who looks like a hippie from 1965 is a Republican? What? Or maybe you bump into sweet quiet Sarah Wong in your DFL precinct and find out she’s the very feisty chairperson.

In many towns, the Republicans and Democrats meet in the same building, so you can look out for people you know and see if they head to the second floor (DFL) or the main floor (Republicans). There are even caucuses for the other parties, such as Legalize Marijuana Now. 

A chairperson calls the meeting to order. There are several pieces of business to address – including electing delegates to the next level, the county or district convention. In a lot of cases, it’s more like arm-twisting to get anyone to volunteer to take those roles.

You can also introduce resolutions on things important to you. It might be something serious, like urging action to curb the high cost of insulin. It might be light-hearted, like seeking to have the milkweed named the state perennial.

The thing that makes a caucus great is that every individual has the ability to have a say at the very basic level. It really can be an awesome thing. But a caucus only works at ground level. It does not work with big crowds and names scratched on pieces of paper.

All eyes right now in our country are focused on the spot at the top. However, there are so many important elections throughout our state, legislative, county, city and school district levels, it is important that we do not forget to pay close attention to these races, which can really have a big impact on our daily lives.

And finally, precinct caucuses can be fun. One of my neighbors brought cookies in 2018. Another had photos of his brand new granddaughter. 

So here’s the key things to remember:

- Both primaries and caucuses are partisan. This is where you can vote or commiserate with others of like minds. 

- The presidential primary vote on March 3 (early voting is underway now) is for president only, and then only by party. There are 15 names on the DFL ballot and only one on the Republican ballot.

- The very fun and festive precinct caucuses will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, near your home. You can look up where you should go on the Secretary of State website: You may need to verify in advance whether it’s OK to bring cookies or brownies.

- Local issues matter, sometimes more than what happens in the White House. 

So think about what you might do at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25. You can always catch the NCIS episode later. And maybe, just maybe, you will make a difference in your own community.

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