Election officials rethink 2020 presidential primary

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Wednesday he has been consulting with local elections officials, political parties and state lawmakers about changing the rules for the 2020 presidential primary so a voter's party preference won't be made public. A vote conducted through mail ballots only is also under consideration.

Simon said he's responding to concerns about a law regarded by some as backdoor party registration in a state where voters don't have to declare a party. To vote in the 2020 primary, people would have to express a preference and that roster would be deemed a public record.

"There's a lot of justifiable anxiety out there about privacy, about having that information in the hands of a neighbor, a friend, an employer," Simon said.

The DFLer elected to a second term in November said he and others are worried about affecting voter participation if things stay as they are. Rules formalized this fall for the 2020 primary spelled out the oath voters would have to take to get a ballot.

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"There will be some percentage of people who will say, 'I would love to vote in a presidential primary but not at the cost of having my political party preference be public," Simon said. "Keep in mind, Minnesota has never had party registration."

The plan Simon will put before lawmakers would still give parties some access to data about which party ballot a voter picks, likely through a sign-in roster. But the broader public couldn't obtain it. Simon said party officials are insistent that the information be collected or their national parties won't recognize the primary as binding for the purpose of awarding convention delegates.

The primary is returning after a nearly three decade hiatus. State lawmakers re-instituted a presidential primary after complaints about precinct caucuses in 2016 when a crush of participating voters strained the system.

Simon also wants Minnesota lawmakers to consider making the 2020 presidential primary an election where only mail-in ballots are used to cut down on overhead costs. Any registered voter would automatically get a ballot.

He said county officials have pressed for the change, given that there will be three elections to administer that year: a presidential primary, a state primary in August and the November general election.

Simon said the Minnesota Legislature would have to decide whether to make one or both changes -- one does not depend on the other -- in the 2019 session because the presidential primary would be early in 2020. The exact date has yet to be formally set.

He said a mail-only structure would also take some voter education. Currently, about 50,000 to 60,000 voters in rural Minnesota vote in that fashion, meaning millions of others don't.

"I think the earlier we could get the word out the better," Simon said.