BISMARCK — North Dakota Democrats showed out in full force during the state party's presidential caucus as turnout far exceeded expectations.

The Democratic-NPL Party only released the results of the state's mail-in ballots in time for publication Tuesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is leading the pack with 878 votes to former Vice President Joe Biden's 580 votes. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who have both suspended their campaigns, each received more than 200 votes.

Party spokesman Alex Rohr said more North Dakota Democrats cast their ballots in the first three hours on Tuesday, March 10, than in the whole 2016 caucus, when only about 3,350 people voted. In all, the number of voters statewide on Tuesday at least tripled the 2016 figure.

John Matthews, the chairman of New York-based Global Election Services, said full results of the caucus wouldn't likely come out until the early hours of the morning because the turnout statewide, but particularly in Fargo and Grand Forks, was "so crazy."

Some voters waited for over an hour in lines to check in at polling sites in the two Democratic strongholds. Matthews said "a tremendous amount of young people" were voting in those cities for the first time, which means election workers had to take extra time to put them into the system one by one.

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Matthews, whose company was charged with counting the votes and handling logistical concerns Tuesday, said the long lines are indicative of voter enthusiasm.

As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Matthews estimated 2,050 people voted in Fargo, about 1,500 in Grand Forks and 1,350 in Bismarck. He also said around 2,200 votes were sent in by mail.

A total of 352 delegates were up for grabs on March 10, dubbed "Mini-Super Tuesday," as Democrats in Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and North Dakota headed to the polls. Biden is projected to win Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi, according to the New York Times.

Worth only 14 pledged delegates, North Dakota is a small chip for Democratic candidates, and none have campaigned heavily in the state.

The field has thinned out considerably in recent weeks, leaving Biden and Sanders as the only candidates with a realistic shot at the Democratic nomination.

All 14 polling locations for the Democratic-NPL Party's caucuses were open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central time, however voters still waiting in line at closing time were allowed to vote.

North Dakota Republicans also held a caucus on Tuesday, but the winner was never in doubt. President Donald Trump was the only candidate on the ballot, and there was no write-in option. The eight Republican caucus sites around the state were open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Central time. Party chairman Rick Berg said the party would count the ballots internally, but no final tally was announced in time for publication.

Bismarck abuzz

Rohr said he was very encouraged by the initial turnout at Bismarck's AFL-CIO House of Labor, which served as the capital city's polling site. A half-hour after voting began, about 100 people were waiting in line to check in with party officials. Part of the line snaked out the union house's front door.

"You pop in that room and people are waiting in line, but they seem pretty comfortable with that," Rohr said. "People are excited about today. I think that's pretty clear."

Hailee Marter and Tylor Boatner, both 17-year-old students at Legacy High School in Bismarck, came to cast their first-ever ballots when the polls opened Tuesday. The party allows 17-year-old residents to vote if they will turn 18 before the November general election.

Marter and Boatner said they felt a sense of responsibility to exercise they're newly earned right to vote. Both students said they supported Sanders because of his consistency on social issues and his backing of the "Medicare for All" health care plan.

"I know a lot of kids our age do not give two craps about [voting]. They just say, 'whatever, it doesn't affect me,'" Marter said. "But in the long run, it affects a lot of people even if it's not me."

Tylor Boatner (left) and Hailee Marter, both 17, cast their first-ever votes for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic-NPL Party's presidential caucus in Bismarck on Tuesday, March 10. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Tylor Boatner (left) and Hailee Marter, both 17, cast their first-ever votes for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic-NPL Party's presidential caucus in Bismarck on Tuesday, March 10. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Ron Jyring, 60, said he cast his ballot for Biden because he believes the former vice president and senator has the best chance of taking down Trump in November. Jyring said Biden would "make a good president," but he would have voted for anyone on the Democratic side that had a shot at winning.

Sergio Smith, a 32-year-old Bismarck resident, said he felt a duty to vote because, as an African American and a person who was raised by women, he understands that he's not so far removed from a time when the right to vote wasn't afforded to everyone. Smith said he voted for Sanders because "he did the least amount of pandering" and he really believes in the positions he supports publicly.

Terry Wiklund, 71, said he attended the caucus to vote for Sanders because "he's the only one that offers change." Wiklund said Trump is "poisoning the pot" for future generations by appointing prejudiced judges, and Sanders would put an end to it.

The mood was decidedly different at the state's Republican caucus in Bismarck, where more than 100 people showed up to fill in the bubble next to Trump's name. Berg said the Tuesday night event was meant to serve as an informal kickoff to Trump's reelection campaign.

Dozens of Trump campaign signs hung on the walls of the Ramada Inn meeting room. Some voters enjoyed an alcoholic drink from the cash bar in the corner of the room.

State Auditor Josh Gallion helped check voters into the polling place. The Republican official, who is up for reelection in 2020, said Tuesday's event was a way to reaffirm his conservative values.

"(The caucus) just shows a clear support for Republican principles here in North Dakota, and that's important for the people to get out and express," Gallion said. "I think we have the winning message and the winning platform."

Patricia Leno, 64, said she wanted to show support for Trump because she believes his policies align with her Christian values. She said his strong support of Israel and the religious rights of all people have won her over even though she didn't initially support him in the 2016 Republican primary elections.

'A more inclusive process'

The format of North Dakota's party-run "firehouse" caucus changed substantially since 2016, when Sanders handily defeated eventual nominee Hillary Clinton in the state.

Voters could cast a ballot and leave Tuesday — much the same as they would in a state-run election. Previously, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party opted for a more traditional caucus, in which voters may have been required to stick around for several rounds of voting to make sure their vote counted. The party also rolled out a mail-in option for the first time in 2020.

The changes were meant to make the voting process more inclusive and accessible to college students, Native Americans and people with irregular schedules, Rohr said.

Follow our ND Caucus live blog for state caucus news