Minnesota politics is in uncharted waters this year with a first-ever August 10 primary election.
September primaries date back to 1939 in Minnesota, but a recent change in federal law forced state lawmakers to move to an earlier date. The full impact of the move remains unclear, but most observers say they expect extremely low voter turnout in the dog days of summer.
Minnesota needed an earlier primary to comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. The federal law ensures that the votes cast by military personnel and other Americans living abroad get counted back home. All states must now provide at least a 45-day window between the primary and general election to accommodate absentee voting.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the date change should solve a key problem.
"We are confident that it will reduce the number of overseas and military ballots that are uncounted because they are late. I believe in 2008 that it was over 500," he said.
But an earlier primary also raises concerns about voter turnout. On Aug. 10, many Minnesotans will be on vacation, college campuses will be quiet and candidates will have not yet campaigned at the State Fair. Ritchie, a DFLer running for a second-term, said turnout could be down to 10 percent -- low even by primary election standards of 20 percent in a good year.
That would mean about 350,000 total primary voters, with even fewer deciding which of three Democratic Farmer Labor candidates for governor gets on the November ballot.
David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University who has spent several months looking at the potential impact of the primary change, predicts a 12 percent turnout, based on similar September to August moves made in Florida and Washington.
With participation that low, Schultz said it might take fewer than 80,000 votes for a DFL gubernatorial candidate to win the primary. He said that's cause for concern.
"Does that really speak for the broader membership of the DFL?" he asked. "That's a real question there. I mean there [are] some real questions about democracy in terms of that small number."
Schultz said he views the August primary as an experiment that state lawmakers will likely have to revisit if the voter numbers are too low.
There's no going back to September, but Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, is among those still pushing for an even earlier primary. Bonoff, who sponsored the measure last session that changed the primary, said turnout would be better in early June, before schools dismiss for the summer.
"Our tradition in Minnesota says when the kids are done with school, that's when our focus changes and we spend time with our family," she said. "Whenever we can we get out of town, we go up north, we go to the lake, and we want to preserve that."
But Bonoff concedes that another change will be difficult, because too many legislators oppose a June primary. They don't want to have to start making political decisions before the end of the Legislative session in mid-May.
State Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, said he wants to stick with the August primary. Gerlach, who also worked on last session's election bill, said he thinks most primary voters know about the earlier date.
"It's people who tend to really pay attention and follow the news and follow issues," Gerlach said. "They've certainly been receiving mail and phone calls from candidates campaigns alerting them to [the earlier date], plus all of the press coverage it's gotten."
Gerlach is also not worried about the turnout next Tuesday. He said the competitive nature of a primary race -- such as this year's DFL contest -- is always a bigger factor than the timing of the vote.