On Tuesday, March 1, Minnesota residents will head to their caucus locations to cast their votes in the 2016 primary elections. Minnesota is one of 12 states that uses a caucus system for primary elections. In order to be eligible to caucus on March 1, one must be at least 18 years old by Nov. 8, 2016, be an American citizen, reside in a caucus precinct and not intend to vote or caucus in another state besides Minnesota.
Minnesota’s average turnout rate sits a little above 50 percent for the general elections, but the primary turnout rate is dismal, averaging at well below 10 percent. To encourage more residents to get to the polls, Carleton College sophomore Nick Cohen created the Northfield Initiative. Over winter break, he and a few friends developed a website and social media campaign that informs voters about local caucus information and presents objective, nonpartisan candidate profiles.
“I think that engaging in democracy is extremely important and not a lot of people, in today’s standards, vote in the general [election], let alone the primaries, which ultimately decide who the nominee is going to be,” Cohen said.
The initiative has collaborated with Carleton’s Center for Community Engagement and the League of Women Voters and also has reached out to the St. Olaf and greater Northfield communities.
“I personally want to focus more on the Northfield community because in my experience, college-aged kids at Carleton and St. Olaf tend to be more politically engaged and active. So [the Northfield Initiative] is designed to help encourage townies to go as well.”
Besides providing polling location information, the initiative presents nonpartisan information about all seven remaining presidential candidates. The group drew from the various candidates’ official campaign websites to create easy-to-read descriptions of their campaign platforms.
“The idea is for everyone to engage with it,” Cohen said. “The information on [the website], besides the one section about Northfield’s caucus system specifically, applies to anyone in the state of Minnesota, and the information on the candidates, that applies to everyone in the States.”
The group hopes to continue and expand its efforts past the Minnesota caucuses but is unsure what form the initiative will take in the future. To get involved with the Northfield Initiative, students may contact Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the initiative’s website, nofoinitiative.org.
In another move to make the caucus more accessible, some St. Olaf students recently traveled to a Rice County Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party meeting to push for the change of the location of the Democratic caucuses. The caucus locations for Northfield Ward 1, Precinct 1 and Ward 4, Precinct 2 were successfully changed from Northfield Middle School to the St. Olaf and Carleton campuses.
Organizer for St. Olaf’s Students for Sanders branch Taylor Lightman ’16 and President of the St. Olaf College Democrats Sydney Spreck ’18 attended the meeting. Lightman was concerned that it would be difficult for students to travel to Northfield Middle School, and after he and other concerned students filed an official DFL challenge form and collected over 100 signatures, the Rice County DFL decided to address the issue at its meeting.
After arguments were made for both sides of the issue, it was decided by vote that the caucus locations would be changed in favor of students’ arguments.
Not all meeting attendees were happy with the result, with many saying that they wished students would have been involved in earlier discussions about caucus locations. Some voiced concerns about handicap accessibility and the flip side of burdening those off-campus. Many others were excited that students were part of the process, given that the precinct contains only five residential houses apart from the college.
St. Olaf students will be able to caucus for the Democratic primary in the Pause starting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1. Caucus registration begins at 6 p.m. The Republican caucus will be held at Northfield Middle School, also beginning at 6:30 p.m. on March 1.
Danny Vojcak ’19 contributed reporting for this article.