Steve Fletcher 3rd Ward Convention

Let’s Reform the Municipal Party Endorsement Process Before 2021

I have been involved with politics since I was a volunteer with Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s re-election campaign in 2012. I have been a campaign manager, a consultant, and a party official at an endorsement convention.

I live in Minneapolis, and together with St. Paul and other cities, we have ranked-choice voting for our municipal general elections.

I recently finished listening to FiveThirtyEight’s three-part podcast series on the history and future of political party primaries. Highly recommend.

The third episode about the future of primaries includes listener input regarding ranked-choice voting in both primaries and general elections.

We as Americans are generally in favor of “small-D” democracy; we like our dollar menu, our car culture, and our complicated elections. Similarly to how mac-n-cheese bites are not ideal for our physical health, the current primary situation is clearly not ideal for our national health based on certain metrics such as representation.

Minneapolis and St. Paul eliminated city primaries when they adopted ranked-choice voting in the mid-2000s. I believe this was a mistake. Instead of a few thousand people voting in a city council primary, we now have around a few hundred delegates voting on a particular Saturday at a particular location to choose the next representative of a ward.

Steve Fletcher 3rd Ward Convention

In 2017, according to Ballotpedia and available media reports, 9 of 13 city council members in Minneapolis won their general election with their party’s endorsement. In 4 of the 13 races, there was no party endorsement. In no races did a party-endorsed candidate lose their race. In 2019, 6 of 7 city DFL-endorsed city council candidates in St. Paul won their general elections. There was no endorsement in one race, Ward 6.

Clearly the party endorsement is a major factor in the success of a candidate even with ranked-choice voting.

The challenge arises when the makeup of our current municipal endorsement process does not match the demographics of our cities overall. It is now commonplace that caucuses and conventions are generally older and whiter than the wards they represent. It is also difficult for residents with disabilities to participate in the process.

Take the example of my 93-year-old grandmother. She never caucused or participated in any party conventions. She voted in general elections, but she never had a say in who made it to the November ballot. Now a senior, she rolls in a wheelchair and the prospect of participating in caucuses and conventions seems very daunting.

This year, however, Minnesota switched to a presidential preference primary. I helped my grandmother sign up for an early voting ballot on her iPad. She received the ballot in the mail, and I was her witness. In the proportional system of the Democratic primary process, she was very happy that her vote would count for something even if her candidate was not first in votes. “It’s over with!” she said.

Think of all the people in your life who for any reason cannot currently participate in the endorsement process for city elections. If you have participated, think of all the people who signed in but left early because of work, school, or family commitments.

Politics should not only be accessible for the privileged.

Given these challenges, let’s reintroduce a version the municipal primary — an endorsement election — and eliminate the caucus process entirely. Let’s schedule it for the best weather of the entire year (possibly June). Let’s make it ranked-choice, so a majority of party supporters are behind each party’s endorsed candidate. Let’s include all the opportunities to make your voice heard by voting, including early voting and voting by mail. Let’s make the party endorsement process more “small-D” democratic.

Given the current dynamics concerning the Kahn rule and the possibility of two-year terms for city council in Minneapolis, it may be very advantageous to release maps and then have an open endorsement election in the late spring or early summer.

Just to be clear, this would be a party endorsement election and not a nomination primary. If a party member wished to run as a member of their party in the general election, they could. Just like it is today.

One major argument used in favor of the caucus system is that it activates the most-informed party members to make decisions about the future of the party. It is true that there are many highly-activated constituencies in the party caucus system, but this is not necessarily representative of the broader body public. Sometimes the argument is made that these activists can speak for those who are not able to participate. The truth is that people are the best voice for themselves in a democracy, and in a republic they should be able to chose their own representatives. If the process — and it is a hours-long process over many days — is limited to only those who are “most active”, it means that other voices are not heard. That is wrong.

We can look to the change to a presidential primary as a guide for how our endorsement process can be reformed. During the last presidential nomination cycle, Minnesota Republicans and DFLers held caucuses on the night of March 1, 2016. This was different than caucuses in other states. Instead of a hours-long affair to make a judgement on the presidential nomination, there was a simple paper ballot for presidential preference and caucus-goers could leave after casting a ballot. But not all caucus sites ran smoothly. I attended my own precinct caucus. My mother did the same. My father, who is disabled, chose to send a letter to his caucus casting his preference ballot for his choice of nominee but did not participate in the conventions to endorse local candidates.

MinnPost has a great article on the history of the new presidential primary in Minnesota. On 2016, “Republicans and DFLers held precinct caucuses in a year when both parties’ contests for president were open and contested. High interest led to meetings that were overcrowded and chaotic, with some voters giving up and going home rather than wait hours to participate.”

Out of that chaos, both parties supported switching to presidential primaries. After the city caucuses and conventions of 2017 where several races, including the Minneapolis mayoral race, ended with no endorsement, can we reform the process again?

The party endorsement is a huge factor in determining the outcome of our elections. For the health of our democracy, we need to open it up to everybody.

What would your ideal election system be? Have you survived a ten-hour convention? Share your dreams and your nightmares in the comments.

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.

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