Presidential primary push gets underway at Capitol

Rep. Tim Sanders, left, and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, right, discussed a proposed presidential primary during a House committee hearing. Tim Pugmire|MPR News.

A Minnesota House committee began the debate Wednesday about switching Minnesota to a presidential primary.

Lawmakers began calling for the move after many precinct caucus sites were overwhelmed by heavier-than-expected turnout on March 1. Primary supporters say now is the time to make the change. But there are still a lot of questions about how a primary would work and how much it would cost.

• Related: Why does Minnesota have a caucus?

Interest in this year’s presidential contest is running high, and lots of Minnesotans showed up at precinct caucuses to vote for their preferred candidates. It was record turnout for state Republicans and nearly a record for Democrats. But unlike a typical election, everyone had to arrive at roughly the same time, and that caused problems.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Too many people had to wait in long lines and others couldn’t find parking spots, said Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, chair of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee.


“We weren’t adequately prepared to handle the engagement from Minnesota citizens to participate in choosing who their nominee would be in the respective parties for President of the United States,” Sanders said.

Under Sanders' bill, Minnesota would hold a presidential primary to proportionately allocate party delegates on March 3, 2020. It would be run by local and state election officials rather than the political parties. The measure would allow precinct caucuses, and the statewide August primary for other political contests would remain in place.

Sanders’ bill sets up an open primary, which means voters would decide in private which party to support. But Sanders said state Republican and DFL party leaders are pushing for a system that records which party’s ballot each voter selects. Under that system, those selections would be public information.

“Part of the thinking behind that, which I can respect, is this isn’t about who Minnesota thinks should be the Democrat candidate or who Minnesota thinks should be the Republican nominee for president," he said. "This is about who the members of Minnesota’s DFL think the DFL nominee should be and who do the voters in Minnesota who are Republican think the Republican nominee should be.”

Neither major party chair showed up for the hearing.

Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, said she like the idea of a primary. But she objected to it being closed. Laine said she doesn’t want the political parties dictating the structure of a taxpayer-funded primary.

“I understand the rationale of the parties, and their desires," Laine said, "But we are writing the law for the people, and it just makes my Minnesota sensibilities cringe at the thought of the lack of privacy in a closed primary, where your choice of what party you voted for is public information.”

Minnesota has experimented a handful of times with presidential primaries. The last one was 1992.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon testified in support of the switch. He said his preliminary cost estimate for cities and counties to conduct a statewide presidential primary if between $4 million and $6 million. Simon said the state will need to reimburse those local costs.

“One of the reasons why the experiment of 1992 was not sustained for longer was because of complaints from the local level about some of the costs," Simon said. "So, I think this is a great idea worth pursuing. I just hope that we do right by the counties, the cities and the townships.”

The bipartisan bill appears to be moving on a relatively fast track. It gets its first committee vote Tuesday. But not all lawmakers are convinced of the urgency.

Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said she thinks the issue needs more discussion.

“Do we even know what a majority of people think about what happened on March 1?" she asked. "To so quickly conclude that ‘gee, it didn’t work, and we have to fix it’ seems uninformed.”

Sanders said he’s trying to seize on the momentum for a presidential primary, while memories of caucus night crowds are still fresh. He also noted the rare consensus building among both parties to make the change.