Minnesota ushers in a full-fledged presidential primary as early voting begins Friday, a change expected to attract more participation but that is drawing concern about the way it will be conducted.
This is unlike other elections in one big way: To get a ballot, you must declare a party. And the ballot you pick eventually will be shared with the state’s four major political parties.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a DFLer, is already making noise about trying to change the law to clearly hem in parties on how they can use the data.
“A major concern of mine and of my office is that there are no apparent restrictions on what the political parties can do once they get this very valuable information about who has chosen which party’s presidential ballot,” Simon said. “That concerns me to the extreme.”
Minnesota ditched its long run with a presidential preference poll at precinct caucuses after voters got fed up in 2016.
Widespread frustration with crowded sites and other caucus quirks led lawmakers to bring back a presidential primary.
It will be overseen by election professionals instead of party volunteers at a cost to taxpayers estimated to reach $12 million. Voters have almost seven weeks rather than just a couple of hours to participate.
Ballots cast starting this week will be counted after the polls close on March 3 — the Super Tuesday date the primary itself falls on.
Democrats have 15 candidates on their ballot; Republicans have only President Trump and a write-in line.
Simon said even the most seasoned voters should be aware that this primary is a new animal.
“There will be separate ballots by party. We’re not used to doing that in Minnesota,” Simon said. “And the voters will have to make a choice between either the Democratic ballot or the Republican ballot.”
Voters will also have to swear an oath declaring themselves in “general agreement with the principles of the party” whose ballot they pick. But Simon acknowledges it's a somewhat loose standard.
“There are no political party police in our office or anywhere else in Minnesota that are going to be monitoring people’s political sympathies,” he said.
Minnesota’s DFL, Republican and two marijuana major parties will each receive a complete rundown of which voters chose which ballot. The record won’t reflect the candidate someone selected, however.
It still rubs Joel Wraa the wrong way.
“If you don’t want to disclose your party affiliation, you can’t vote. It’s nonsensical,” said Wraa, a clerk in Clover Township in northwestern Minnesota.
Wraa described himself as a proud conservative and said he’ll still vote because he wants to exercise his rights. But he worries that some people will be discouraged out of fear for their jobs, their relationships or something else.
“You have understand in these small towns that everybody knows everything and everybody hears anything,” Wraa said. “We have people coming up here and they’re very confrontational.”
Preparations around how to conduct the primary have been underway for months — even years in some places.
Andy Lokken, the elections director for Dakota County, has been working to familiarize election judges and others involved in the process on what’s new.
“We talked to our election judges and administrators about minimizing any conflict. This is just the way it is. It’s been passed this way,” Lokken said.
“That no one in the polling place is in control of that procedure; they just have to follow it through.”
In most of Dakota County’s precincts, they’ll use electronic poll books to check in voters. Lokken said use of those iPad-style devices should reduce the need for voters or election judges to talk about their party choice.
But the issue is not only about polling place interactions.
Simon said it’s conceivable that one or more of the parties legally entitled to the rosters could post those details online or share them with allied groups, candidates or other interests. He said there's time for a fix because the data won’t be ready for distribution until several weeks after the March election.
The Democratic and Republican parties already have a lot of information about how Minnesotans lean politically. This draws a bright line.
“We’ll probably have a list between 500,000 to 750,000 known DFLers who have voted, and that’s pretty valuable,” DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said.
Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan said the information from the primary will reinforce the voter data the party already has.
Martin said he’ll back a legislative push by Simon to limit the use of the voter data.
“This data should not be used for any sort of commercial gain or public gain,” he said. “The parties should not be able to turn around and make it available to the public or to outside allied groups.”
As of now, Carnahan says the plan is to keep the voter data within the party: “The party meaning: the Republican Party of Minnesota, the RNC, the Trump reelection campaign.”
Simon’s proposal could face a skeptical reception in the Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said discussion of changes are premature.
“I’m always reluctant to change law when there is no demonstrated problem just wonderings and concernings and stuff,” said Kiffmeyer, who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over elections. “Let’s let it run through before we make a whole lot of changes to something that’s in process.”
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