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Price tag for Minnesota's 2020 presidential primary expected to rise

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Winston Chrislock left a St. Paul polling place.
Winston Chrislock, a retired professor at the University of St. Thomas, left the polling place at the Front Ave High Rise in St. Paul's Fifth Ward on Nov. 3, 2015. A contentious city council race in the ward brought higher than expected turnout.
Regina McCombs | MPR News

Updated: Aug. 7, 10:47 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 6 1:30 p.m

The return of a presidential primary seven months from now won’t come cheap.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, Minnesota’s top elections official, expects the March 3rd primary to cost several million dollars. Simon, a DFLer, put out a call this week to local voting administrators to build a list of expenses they anticipate in hopes of getting reimbursement later.

“I want to make sure the Legislature can keep its promise to not have local governments left holding the bag,” Simon said.

Next year, there will be three statewide elections in Minnesota: A March presidential primary, an August state primary and the November general election.

The thought of pulling them all off without a hitch leaves Blaine City Clerk Cathy Sorensen with “heartburn,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s definitely going to be a little bit of stress on our staff,” Sorensen said.

Not to mention extra cost. The straw ballot at precinct caucuses that the presidential primary will replace was run and paid for by the major political parties. The new primary is at taxpayer expense.

In an interview Monday, Simon said he’s not precisely sure how big of an expense it will be. When they passed the law to bring back the presidential primary, lawmakers were told it would cost at least $3.6 million — a figure that now seems low to Simon.

“The Legislature knew or should have known that that number was going to go up for a lot of reasons,” Simon said, suggesting it could be “substantially higher.”

His office is working to nail down a new estimate early this fall.

Simon will eventually have to go to the state’s finance agency to seek release of money that would reimburse local entities, based on allowable costs his office certifies.

Currently, local officials can recoup costs for the printing of ballots, setting up polling places, testing equipment, paying staff overtime and hiring election judges. Some of those costs are capped at $100 or $150 per precinct.

But lawmakers deferred to Simon to consider other reimbursable costs.

“Things like postage for overseas and military ballots. That’s not included in the usual absentee category. Things like the training for election judges,” Simon said. “There may be an awful lot of new training for election judges. Some of the regular folks might be snowbirds during the winter. They might not even be around for this election.”

Simon said when lawmakers enacted the new law a few years ago there wasn’t time to catalog all potential expenses.

He said he’s learned of townships that shut down their town hall during the winter to save money.

“And if they’re going to have to have a polling place, that means someone is going to have to pay for winterizing and plowing a town hall, making sure there is a port-o-potty outside and all the rest,” Simon said.

David Hann, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, said it’s uncommon for the nearly 2,000 townships in the state to have full-time employees devoted to elections.

Hann is encouraging his members to weigh in with Simon.

“Because it’s so new,” Hann said, “no one really knows what kind of costs they’re going to be looking at.”

In Blaine, Clerk Sorensen is well down that path. She’s also an elections task force member for the League of Minnesota Cities.

For a typical primary election, Sorensen will have nine or 10 election judges at each of Blaine’s 24 precinct polling locations.

For the March primary, she said she “might even go a little bit more only because being the first one since 1992, there’s going to be a lot of voter education we’re going to have to do at the polling place.”

Sorensen expects to know more about voter interest as absentee ballots become available on January 17th -- the earliest voting start in the country for the 2020 White House race.

Voters may be caught off guard when poll workers ask which political party ballot they want to fill out. Minnesota lacks voter registration by party.  As part of the primary law, political parties will learn later which ballots voters chose.

“Folks are kind of used to getting just one ballot when they come to vote. Here we’re going to ask them which ballot do they want,” Sorenson said. “We’re anticipating that kind of quizzical look of ‘Why do you want to know?’”

Correction (Aug. 7, 2019): A previous version of this story said Secretary of State Steve Simon would need legislative approval for funds to reimburse local governments for their presidential primary costs. In 2016, the Legislature created an open appropriation for the primary, but Simon must go through some steps before a state finance agency releases the money his office will use for reimbursement.