Early votes for non-candidates in Minnesota lead some to call for primary changes

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A person stands in a booth to vote.
Jared Mollenkof casts his ballot Jan. 17 at Minneapolis' early voting center during the first day of early voting in the presidential primary.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Early votes in Minnesota for Democratic candidates no longer in the race have already led to discussions at the state Capitol about how to improve the state’s presidential primary.

Minnesota's first presidential primary since 1992 allowed for early voters to change their votes up to a week before the election, but that system would only have worked for those casting ballots for candidates like Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Andrew Yang.

Those who voted early for Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer — who exited just days before Tuesday’s primary — were out of luck. In the end, more than 52,000 votes were cast in Minnesota for candidates no longer in the race.

More Klobuchar's exit shows a downside of early voting in Minnesota

Some see ranked-choice voting — where voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference — as the solution to the problem.

“That changes everything,” said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, who has spent years advocating for ranked-choice voting. “Your first choice, and should that candidate drop out of the race, you would have a backup candidate to count or another one. That would be the benefit of doing that with early voting.”

Minnesota’s top election official, Secretary of State Steve Simon, said there might be a place for ranked-choice voting in the presidential nomination primary. Simon said he is intrigued by the possibilities but also said a change like that would need a broad consensus.

“I think the first thing would be to determine whether the parties wish for their nominees to be determined in that fashion,” he said. “I’d want to consult with all the major political parties — the Democrats, the Republicans and at least for now the two marijuana parties — to see if that is something that was acceptable to them.”

Some lawmakers believe the problem is with the early voting system itself. Minnesota’s early voting window opened Jan. 17. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that’s too early.

“The reality is that we want to have some level of an early voting window. But right now it’s just too big, and the consequence of this is that you have different voters making different decisions based off of different current events,” he said.

Minnesota’s switch to a presidential primary was driven by complaints four years ago when precinct caucuses of both major parties were swamped by people trying vote in presidential preference straw polls. Primary participation was significantly higher than the 2016 caucuses.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said another groundswell for change is unlikely.

“The whole process is really governed by the national party rules. It’s not a Minnesota election really. It’s an expression of our preference, and then there’s this party process at the national conventions,” she said. “I think people will appreciate that they didn’t have to go to a high school or an elementary school on a Tuesday night in February and wait outside to cast a straw poll.”

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the chair of the state government committee, said she wants to wait until the dust settles before discussing any additional changes to the presidential primary. Kiffmeyer, who served as secretary of state from 1999 to 2007, said voters should wait, if they can, to cast their ballots.

"Absentee voting or even early voting as we call it is good if you can’t be there on Election Day. But you’ll always have the most information by election or on Election Day,” she said. “So, this kind of proves the point that I’ve said frequently: Don’t use absentee or other systems unless you cannot make it on Election Day.”

Even if a primary is more convenient for people, Minnesotans have complained about another aspect of the new system: handing over their names and party preferences to Minnesota's political parties. Republicans and DFLers at the Capitol have discussed the issue but haven't reached agreement on any changes.

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