Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Primary Time

Carol Veldman Rudie


A long time ago now--as political time is calculated--I sat through my Minnesota precinct caucus. On the same day, I voted in the Minnesota presidential primary.

If this sounds muddled, it is.

On paper, Minnesota is a caucus state. Generally speaking, caucus participants attend a meeting and vote for delegates who represent their presidential candidate preference. The requirement of attending a meeting ensures party identity. As well, the meeting of neighbors to experience this process together reinforces the commitment to individual, local involvement.

On Super Tuesday, however, my party’s precinct caucus meeting was preceded by an opportunity for one and all to vote for their favorite presidential candidate in a binding preference vote. The line for participating in that vote wound around the room, through the door, and down the hall. Most of the people in line were not on the party rolls and so had to be registered. After people signed in, they could vote. Ballots were slips of paper with names listed and a place to check that “binding vote.” When the supply of official ballots ran out, people just wrote their preference on a slip of paper. All voting was to be completed in about two hours, but with the combination of freezing weather and a long wait, many people just left.

The state’s two major parties considered the result of this ballot “binding.” The total for each candidate translated into the number of delegates awarded to each one. So what happened at the caucus meeting--and all subsequent conventions--had nothing to do with the presidential candidate race. The only business of those meetings was to determine the identity of the delegates, not whom they supported for final candidate status.

In other words, Minnesota held a poorly run primary to determine the number of delegates who would ultimately support each candidate at the national convention.

The process weaknesses of this system were so obvious that a barrage of commentary resulted. The cry for change came from ordinary citizens, newspaper editorials, elected officials, and party members. Now that the legislature is in session, several bills have been introduced to change the state’s presidential nomination process from a caucus to a true, well-run primary.

But will this change really accomplish an improvement in my citizen involvement in selecting presidential candidates?

The Voice of the People and the Voice of the Political Party

This rethinking focuses discussion on an election issue that has surfaced more and more often: By what system, or set of rules, should people express their political preferences? My own participation in Minnesota’s befuddled format forced me to look not at the results, but at the system itself.

One of the many problems with the way candidates get on presidential ballots is that the process attempts to attend to two voices at once. The value that underlies our current system of presidential ballot construction seems to be the “voice of the people.” In other words, primaries and caucuses support the notion that the names on the presidential ballot should somehow reflect the names that most citizens want there. So both caucus and primary serve to collect and validate the people’s choices.

However, these processes are also based on the presupposition that parties ultimately control ballot access to form the final candidate pool. These parties are supposed to reflect a collective voice. Today, however, our two major parties are loose groupings of people who reflect differing public philosophies. Their main purpose is to create electability for whichever presidential candidate represents the current dominant collective. Over time, both the Democratic and Republican parties have been branded with differing—and sometimes contradictory—public philosophies, depending on the dominant group within the party. Each group competes for a winner-take-all party candidate to field in the November election.

Minnesota’s Democratic Party is transparent about three groups within its loose coalition. Its very name, Democratic Farmer Labor Party (known as the DFL), is traced to a 1944 merger of two different groups consisting of the Farmer-Labor Party (itself the result of a merger) with the Democratic Party. (From the same history of labor and farmer discontent came North Dakota’s Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party, the only other state where the umbrella nature of the party is openly acknowledged.) The result in Minnesota is that the party is required to support labor unions and, to a much lesser extent, traditional farmers. As both of those groups dwindle in numbers and political impact, the party’s policy discourse on those worlds sounds more and more out of touch with twenty-first century realities.

The past presidential election seasons have shown us how these two forces—the voice of the people and the voice of the political party—come up with a presidential nominee. One is a ground game, dominated by local organizers who meticulously cultivate the local political structures. The other is the top-down approach dominated by upper levels of the party management. Add to those options the current benefits of wealth and the importance of media personality to understand how neither route to the national ticket knows how to handle wild-card candidates like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

An alternative to this status quo is not difficult to imagine. A multiplicity of parties could easily reflect the real diversity now buried either in each party or in the much larger group of citizens that refuses to participate in the process at all. If such party diversity existed, the “voice of the people” and the “voice of the party” would harmonize much more closely than they do now.

Reporting Problems

Complicating my frustration with Minnesota’s broken caucus system was the generalized ignorance about how the parties counted those “binding preference votes.” Media reports on the results of Minnesota caucuses illustrated the problem. According to them, Minnesota was an “outlier state” in the Super Tuesday results because Rubio and Sanders “swept the state.” Truthful reporting should have understood what was really happening.

Both of Minnesota’s major parties are basing the assignment of national convention delegates on proportionality. Each candidate will get a percentage of the state’s delegate total based on the numbers of votes cast for that candidate. So, my preference vote will be represented whether or not my candidate got the most votes. In the final count, the Republican turnout awarded 44.74 percent of its vote to Rubio; Rubio now has seventeen delegates at the national convention. Cruz came in second with 34.21 percent of the vote and thirteen delegates. Trump earned 21.05 percent and eight delegate votes. On the other side, results were also distributed proportionally. Sanders received 61.692 percent of the vote and so earned forty-seven delegates. Clinton had 38.308 percent of the vote and thirty delegates.

To give credit to party decisions, this proportionality raises the level of the people’s voice within the state parties. Because there aren’t “winner-take-all” delegates, no candidate “sweeps the state.” Instead, Minnesotan support for individual candidates is reflected in the relative strength of that ballot support.

Finally, each party retains its control over the process—the party voice—through the use of super delegates, the automatic membership of the state’s elected officials to the party’s national delegate pool. Adding complexity to this count is the fact that many of the DFL super delegates are pledged to Clinton. On the Republican side, the Rubio total was the result of a loosely organized anti-Trump vote more than it represented pro-Rubio support.

Questioning and Reforming the System

In the long run, did my vote or my participation mean anything? What about my participation in the party whose caucus meeting I attended afterwards? How does this current system inspire me to be involved in party support at all? Will a primary improve the system? What are today’s political parties good for anyway?

Questions like these should be asked long after November 2016 has passed into history. To quote CPJ’s Guidelines on Citizenship, “It is essential to the civic health of the American republic that ongoing electoral reform take place, making more adequate representation possible for all citizens.” What CPJ realizes--and so many citizens do not--is the way that systems are shaped by values. Then when a system is in place, it reinforces values. So making changes to improve the presidential campaigning and election process needs to start with the values that those systems should embody. Let me propose some values that we might make sure are included in a presidential election reform project:

  • People rise to candidacy because their understanding of public justice has some measure of broad popular appeal.
  • Campaigning is about the candidates’ ability to govern.
  • Citizens can freely form representative groups to propose candidates.
  • Equal ballot access is guaranteed to candidates from all such representative groups.
  • All citizens have the right to participate in the political groups and the ability to be represented.
  • The principle of proportionality is honored both in theory and in practice.

From my experience, Minnesota certainly needs representational election reform. Before the next election rolls around, we need to put our heads, hearts, and hands into growing an electoral system that does two things: respects citizens’ right to good representation and provides multiple platforms for conversation about the meaning and implementation of public justice. With the political will to make the right changes, 2020’s political season might be one in which the election shapes the common good while promoting real discourse.

If we don’t do this now as the present system shows its fatal flaws, then when?


Questions for Reflection:

  1. What values do you see reinforced in the current presidential election system? How do you evaluate those values?
  2. In what ways does the current system work well? What reforms can you imagine would improve the process?
  3. If you could form a political party, what would its public justice philosophy be? Its presidential candidate? Its typical member?


--  Carol Veldman Rudie first learned about election reform possibilities by reading CPJ’s position paper on the subject. She is a long-time CPJ supporter and former CPJ board member. She serves on the board of Fair Vote Minnesota, the organization responsible for bringing ranked choice voting to the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”