Wednesday, March 13, 2019

North Dakota Democrats Plan to Hold March 10 Firehouse Caucuses

North Dakota Democrats on Wednesday, March 13 released for public comment the party's draft 2020 delegate selection plan.

Traditionally, Democrats in the Peace Garden state have conducted caucuses as the means by which the party has allocated delegates to the national convention. But caucus states on the Democratic side face a burden in the 2020 that they have not faced in the past. The onus is on those state parties to make the case to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee that they have taken steps to maximize participation in the typically low turnout caucus/convention format. And the evidence thus far indicates that Democratic caucus states are reacting to the new encouragements in Rule 2 in different ways. Iowa Democrats, for example, have proposed new virtual caucuses. Nevada Democrats, too, have laid out plans for early voting in their caucus process.1

Now, with the release of the draft delegate selection plan, North Dakota Democrats have put their own unique spin on a more participatory caucus. Rather than a traditional moving caucus, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL will essentially conduct a party-run primary. Often this is called a firehouse primary because they have been, more often than not, held in firehouses, but North Dakota Democrats are using the term "firehouse caucus" -- verbiage that came out of the Unity Amendment that created the Unity Reform Commission and later appeared in the URC recommendations -- instead.

The terms -- firehouse caucus or firehouse primary -- are interchangeable as both are party-run primaries where typically no state-funded primary option is available. In practice, the difference rests on how many polling locations are set up. State-funded (and run) primaries offer more locations and theoretically greater participation. And while the party-run version has fewer locations, they run all day rather than the smaller and more rigid window used in the caucus format.

And that is the basic structure of the North Dakota plan. There will be 14 firehouse caucus locations set up throughout the state and polls will be open from 11am-7pm on Tuesday, March 10. [That is twelve weeks earlier than the first Tuesday in June caucuses North Dakota Democrats held in 2016.]

In addition to those changes, the party will also use a vote-by-mail process. What is clear about the vote-by-mail proposal is that it is intended to function much like the virtual caucuses in Iowa. Voters with conflicts during the hours in which the caucuses are in session have an alternative option available to them. And it is an option that is available from January 20-March 3. What is not clear is how the vote-by-mail system will operate; whether it will function on top of the state's vote-by-mail system or not. Most unclear is how ballots will be distributed to voters wanting to take advantage of the process. That is something the Rules and Bylaws Committee will train its sights on when this plan is reviewed.

It should likely be the expectation that other caucus states will fall in line with some variation of this plan rather than what Iowa has done and Nevada plans to do. Later caucus states will not have the same restrictions -- working around New Hampshire -- with their delegate selection plans like the other carve-out caucus states do.

The date of the North Dakota Democratic firehouse caucus will be added to the 2020 FHQ presidential primary calendar.

1 There are a great many things left unsaid about details of how the Nevada Democrats are going to accommodate early voting in the caucuses. FHQ will have more on that in a separate post.

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