Making sense of party organization

One of the first things that completely mystifies new volunteers is why they get a number when they ask where someone is from! What the heck is an SD40 or a CD3? Though party organizations differ slightly from state to state, this general guide will likely apply.

The Precinct

Think of a precinct as a neighborhood. It is the smallest unit of party organization (besides the individual volunteer!). If a precinct is running well, precinct chairs and other volunteers will be contacting voters year round, inviting them to events and asking them to volunteer and vote for our candidates in election years.

The process varies between states -for example, if you live in a caucus state, you and your neighbors may gather elect precinct chairs at the same time (say Super Tuesday) that your state casts candidate preference ballots for statewide candidates and President and elect party delegates to conventions. Otherwise, your party will have scheduled meetings or conventions.

In many states, party platform planks -what the state party “believes” in -and puts effort into- also begin as “resolutions” at the same meeting where precinct chairs are elected. The idea for the Peace Corps came from a single person’s resolution at a precinct caucus in Minnesota!

Organizing Unit

An organizing unit (also referred to as a “county unit” or “Senate District”) is about the size of a suburban city or a rural county. The term Senate District is somewhat misleading because a “Senate” district is responsible for supporting a candidate for state Senate and also, generally two state House candidates. Senate Districts may also be supporting candidates for local city offices and school boards in their area, though larger cities and counties may have their own units to endorse city and county candidates and issues.

OU leaders and volunteers organize and train officers, conduct conventions, endorse candidates, raise money and gather volunteers to support the election of their candidates as well as school or city ballot initiatives.

In election years OU conventions get far more interesting! Delegates elected at the precinct level meet to confer party endorsement on candidates for state Senate and House seats. In caucus states this can get quite wild with people running around and screaming. It’s watching the proverbial sausage getting made!

OU conventions are often contentious; besides the Senate and House candidates vying for endorsement, delegates also choose other delegates who then attend attend both the congressional district and state conventions. People supporting a particular candidate or an important issue will hotly compete to become a delegate to those conventions. The congressional or national candidate that earns the most delegates at OU conventions is far more likely to gain an endorsement at the congressional district or state conventions. Delegates in support of issues hope to be influential at the State convention.

Congressional District

Each state gets a specific number of US House Representatives based on population (Minnesota, for example, gets eight). Each one represents a Congressional District. Congressional Districts party units (“CDs”) exist to endorse their candidate at the CD convention and support them with volunteers and a small amount of money. CDs also coordinate the activities of the OUs within their boundaries. OU chairs and co-chairs are automatic members of the CD “central committee”. Other CD Central Committee members and officers are also elected at the CD convention, where the candidate for US House will be endorsed.

State Party

At the state party convention delegates endorse candidates for state offices -in Minnesota, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Sate Auditor. A candidate for US Senate is also endorsed at a state convention.

Delegates to a CD convention (elected at their SD conventions) are also delegates to the state convention and are members of the State Central Committee which meets between conventions to vote on party business. Delegates remain delegates during the two year election cycle. A smaller subset of delegates is elected to the State Executive committee where they participate in more sensitive party decision making.

The convention/SCC delegates elect a state party Chair, Vice Chair, Outreach Officer, Treasurer and Secretary. The State party convention is also where resolutions introduced at precinct caucuses (and consolidated at SD and CD conventions) are voted on.

The State party is also responsible for maintaining the party organization at all levels, raising money to support it’s activities and the activities of lower party units, training volunteers at all levels and setting statewide goals and initiatives for success on election day. The party works closely with the national and state level campaigns and constituencies to plan strategy and spending.

State party employees are few. In Minnesota, the party employs only about ten people, though, in election years, many field coordinators are hired (and interns corralled) to manage day to day voter contact activities.

National Party

The national party endorses candidates for President and Vice president and supports US Senate and House candidates. Delegates to the national party “DNC Members” are elected at both the CD and state conventions and national party leadership is elected by the national delegates with the exception of the Chair who, when there is a Democratic President is appointed and generally approved by the DNC.