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.

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14 thoughts on “Let’s Reform the Municipal Party Endorsement Process Before 2021

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    I’ve been to many endorsing conventions, and am a firm believer that we’d be better off without them. Especially at the city level where there are few parties.

  2. Matt Brillhart

    The crazy thing is that nearly everyone agrees that we need to reform (if not outright eliminate) party endorsements for city-level elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The only people stopping that from happening are the dozens that run the city-level party organizing unit.

    Here’s a simple alternative that would leave everyone happier, and help keep the contests open and fair through the November election (rather than having them be decided by ~200 people in April): Instead of endorsing a single candidate, the caucus should just endorse every candidate who agrees with (and signs) the party platform. Why should ~200 super active DFLers with the most free time effectively pick the winner in April, 7 months before the actual election? It’s the most elitist, undemocratic outcome possible. In the current system, the only good outcome is “no endorsement”, so the full scope of voters are able to make up their minds in November.

      1. Ian R Buck

        In St Paul Ward 1 last year, we came very close to electing Anika Bowie despite Dai Thao being the DFL-endorsed candidate. He won by only 400 votes.

    1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

      Great idea. Though, I would not want to see every candidate in a party have to endorse the entire platform… need some room for diversity of thinking, no? I guess endorsements would carry even less weight, though, and many people could and would simply ignore them.

  3. Stuart

    I went to my local municipal caucus in 2017 specifically to lobby for a “No Endorsement” panel. There is no need for the party to rally behind a single candidate when you have rank-choiced voting. Instead, any party endorsement selected by a tiny sliver of the electorate is likely to take the election. This is anti-democratic in the worst way.

    All municipal endorsements in rank-choiced cities should be eliminated. Let the the people decide.

    If the party wants to have caucuses to discuss party business and platform, that’s great, but allowing an elite group of highly motivated people choose the lead candidate for the rest of us is wrong.

    1. Pete Barrett

      “All municipal endorsements in rank-choiced cities should be eliminated. Let the the people decide.”

      Um, I’m pretty sure that First Amendment thing gives citizens the right to endorse candidates for elective office. Chamber of Commerce. The Pile Drivers Local Union. Even the Illinois Nazis. And I hate Illinois Nazis.

      1. Stuart

        Allow me to correct myself:

        All party endorsements for municipal elections with rank-choice voting should be eliminated.

          1. Stuart

            I am not saying that it should be banned by law. You are correct that a legal ban would be unconstitutional.

            Just because we have the right to speech, does not mean we should use it. In the case of party endorsement for a single candidate in a rank-choice electoral process, the endorsement (in this case from the Minneapolis DFL) gathers opinions from a small sliver of the electorate and then pours a lot of money into supporting that particular person to the exclusion of other candidates that are equally eligible.

            In a traditional election where each party can only put forward a single candidate, some sort of party endorsement is needed. That is not the case for Minneapolis municipal elections.

            I believe that the Minneapolis DFL should stop endorsing candidates for municipal offices because that endorsement has an outsize influence. I believe that the Minneapolis DFL should stop endorsing candidates in the interest of empowering the general electorate instead of favoring the small section of the electorate that has the ability and desire to go to a caucus. I believe that the Minneapolis DFL should stop endorsing candidates in the interest of encouraging a broad range of views within the party.

            I DO NOT believe that endorsements should be banned by law.

            You are welcome to continue supporting the candidate of your choice in any way you desire as an individual. I simply do not believe that party insiders should leverage the power of the party in favor of specific candidates in an open election environment like we have in Minneapolis.

  4. Pete Barrett

    First, this should NOT be seen as being in favor of caucuses.

    The political parties are private organizations. Why are the taxpayers paying for primary elections so they can choose who they will run in the real election? They can choose their candidate however they choose. If you don’t like the DFL choice for office, vote for someone else.

    Did you know we are the only democracy that holds primary elections? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, ain’t no one flattering us.

    For a long time I heard people lament how few people even bothered to vote in primaries. Now I hear them held up as being “so participatory”. Not that turnout for primaries has increased one bit. Whatever.

    Let the parties choose their endorsees for the real election however they like, on their own dime. Don’t like the outcome? Get invovled next time. I don’t get to choose the officers of my local ‘Merican Legion post, because I’m not a member of that organization. Same deal for the parish council at Our Lady of the Concrete Jungle church. I’m not a parishioner, so I don’t get a choice.

    Primaries are a bad idea. We need fewer of them, not more.

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