Minn. Senate committee approves bill to move primary election

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are proposing to move the state's primary election from September to August to comply with a federal law, but there's concern that the move could lower voter turnout

The push to move up the primary comes from a new federal law designed to ensure that there's enough time between the primary and general elections for soldiers to cast absentee ballots. DFL Senator Ann Rest of New Hope said moving this year's primary from Sept. 14 to Aug. 10 will give those voters enough time.

"They should be guaranteed within all reasonable efforts that when they vote that their ballot is going to get here on time and be counted," Rest said.

This isn't the first time the Legislature has considered changing the primary date. Lawmakers passed a wide-ranging elections bill last year that would have created a August primary, but Gov. Pawlenty vetoed it.

"It seems to make sense and I'll go along with it.'"

Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach of Apple Valley said he expects this bill to get broad support from members of both parties. He said the August date is a compromise between those who didn't want to move the primary and those who wanted it in June. He said the new federal law means there's no choice but to move the date.

"This has forced us to come up with the one that we'll coalesce around and when I talked to other legislators, other members, they have said 'OK, this is the best plan that you've come up with to solve this," Gerlach said. "It seems to make sense and I'll go along with it.'"

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Pawlenty has also said he would support moving the primary to August.

While an earlier primary may increase the number of absentee ballots counted in the general election, it's likely to reduce turnout in the primary. In the seven statewide elections held since 1996, voter participation in state primaries has never exceeded 20 percent. DFL State Sen. Terri Bonoff said she expects a dip in voter participation.

"In August, I think we have a tradition in Minnesota of being away and just turning off at that time," Bonoff said. "It's going to take all of our efforts to reach the public and let them know that we'd like them to not only pay attention but come out and vote."

Self preservation may be one of the reasons the primary isn't moving to a more voter-friendly time. DFL Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park said his efforts to move to a June primary were met with resistance from some state lawmakers.

"Particularly some Greater Minnesota legislators who argued essentially this: 'Look, I'm here in St. Paul until the third week in May. If we have a primary in June, some young whippersnapper is going to come along and primary me while I'm stuck here and they're barnstorming the district,'" Simon said. "Even though when you look around the country, that hasn't been the case in states with early primaries necessarily more than other states, there's still that fear out there."

Another state lawmaker suggested she'd be open to moving the primary date to June if voter turnout is much lower than previous years. Supporters of the legislation say they hope to have the full House and Senate vote by the end of this month on the bill that moves the primary date to August.