Minnesota officials preparing for 2020 presidential primary

Published 12:30 am Saturday, November 23, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — On March 3, Minnesota will hold its first presidential nominating primary in nearly three decades — and perhaps its first meaningful primary ever. But many aspects of the election will feel a lot different for those used to voting in primaries and general elections in Minnesota.

As with the state’s August primary, voters must ask for a party ballot, and they will only be able to vote for candidates from that party. Unlike the August primary, though, the voter’s choice of party will be recorded by election officials — and then shared with the DFL, the GOP and two pro-marijuana legalization parties that have been designated as “major parties” under state law.

Another difference: Candidates listed on the DFL and GOP party ballots will not include all those who filed for office. Instead, candidate names will be provided by the chairs of the two parties. In the case of the GOP, the only name appearing on Republican Party ballots will be Donald Trump. The DFL hasn’t submitted its list yet.

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Those same chairs will also get to decide whether there will be a space for write-in candidates (both parties say there will be) and whether election officials can tally those votes by name (a decision that won’t be made until a week before the primary).

And unlike any other election in Minnesota, the costs of the presidential primary will be borne by the state rather than local governments, a tally currently estimated to be $11.9 million.

All of which raises a question that might be asked more frequently as March approaches: Who’s primary is it, anyway? The state, which is picking up the tab? Or the parties, who were allowed to make most of the major decisions — and will be the only entities to get the valuable lists of voters who participate?

Secretary of State Steve Simon has heard these questions a lot. Despite the unfamiliar rules and benefits to the parties, he thinks the state gets something out of having a more familiar process, one that expands voter access and will almost certainly bring out more voters than precinct caucuses do.

In 2016, the caucuses were victims of their own success, Simon said. The GOP caucuses that year drew 114,000 people, while the DFL gatherings attracted 207,000 voters. “This change was brought about because the Legislature perceived that the turnout was so great in both parties that it literally overwhelmed the ability of volunteers to handle it,” he said. “There are more than 4,000 precincts in the state, and the DFL alone needed 15,000 volunteers to staff them.”

“We just aren’t equipped to handle that,” said state DFL Chair Ken Martin.

Both parties will hold precinct caucuses for platform discussions on Feb. 25, 2020, and to select the delegates who will move on to Senate district and county conventions. But under a law passed in 2016, the new March 3 primary will be used to decide how many delegates each candidate gets at the national political conventions. Minnesota is one of 15 states have presidential primaries that day.

“The caucus system has its advantages and its disadvantages,” Simon said recently. The biggest disadvantage is that it doesn’t provide a way for voters who are unable or uncomfortable with attending a public caucus to take part. “If you are working that night, or sick that night, or your kid’s sick that night, or you’re in the military, or you’re studying abroad, or you got a flat tire, whatever it is,” you can’t participate, he said.

Yet the new process will remain a private one, organized by political organizations. And the winners of the presidential primary will not move directly to the November ballot, as happens with candidates on the August primary ballot. Instead, the contest is meant to distribute delegates to the party conventions. That’s why the parties demanded control over which voters take part, which candidates will be on the ballot — and who gets the data on voters.

Why, then, are Minnesota taxpayers footing the bill, at a cost that is more than three times an estimate floated during the 2016 legislative session, when the law instituting the new presidential primary was passed?

“Because this is such a consequential job, no one has ever seriously proposed something for any other office than president of the United States,” Simon said. “It is what binds us to other states; it’s the most powerful person in the world. To give people access to choosing their party’s nominee is something the state has an interest in.”

The 2016 law that created the new presidential primary made party choice of individual voters a public record. Then, during the 2019 legislative session, Simon pushed to change that. His preference was that no one get the information, especially in a state that does not require voters to declare party affiliation when registering to vote.

But the Legislature eventually relented to the parties’ demand that they be provided the names of primary voters in order to police the process. In short, they want to be able to look through the names of voters to identify obvious mischief-making by known activists of the opposing party.

But when the law was passed as part of an omnibus bill, the language (at least as Simon’s attorneys interpret it) gave all major parties the lists of everyone who voted in the primary. That means that not only will the lists go to the DFL and the GOP; they will go to the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party, both of which qualified for major party status by winning more than 5% in races for statewide office in 2018.

Simon said he has pulled together some money from his office budget for a public awareness campaign to make sure voters know their party choice will be known to all four parties.

“While that rule might have a chilling effect on turnout, the worst outcome from my standpoint might be someone voting not knowing that rule and then finding out a day, a week, a month later that the rule existed and being really worried about that disclosure,” Simon said.

State Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan made news — and attracted criticism — when she sent her list of candidates to Simon with only one name on it: Donald Trump.

While she has until the end of the year to make that list official, doing so is not reversible or amendable under state law. Carnahan said she will ask that a line be placed on the ballot for voters to write in an alternative, but she also said the party hasn’t yet decided whether to direct Simon and county elections officials to search for and tally specific names. Like with other elections, elections officials only look for names of those they are directed to, either by a filing by a write-in candidate or by party direction.

Carnahan said only one candidate had notified the state party of their intention to run in the primary, President Trump, though Republican presidential challengers Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld objected to the move on social media. Sanford has since said he won’t run.

“When that story in the Star Tribune came out, some of these other candidates were tagging me in Twitter, calling me a fascist, yet none of your campaigns has ever reached out to our office or me as the chair with a request for ballot access,” Carnahan said. “It is not my job to run someone else’s presidential campaign. It is incumbent on candidates to, quite honestly, know the rules in every state.”

Carnahan said the decision was made by her executive committee. Unlike some states that have canceled GOP primaries, the Republican Party of Minnesota wanted to take part in the process, she said.

Yet Carnahan made her decision well before the deadline for doing so: 63 days before the March 3 primary. She said she did it shortly after the committee met to discuss the primary. Whatever her decision, she said Trump will get all 39 of the state’s delegates to Charlotte if he wins 50% of the vote plus one.

Other states use different methods, including simply filing to be on the ballot. It was that system that was used in Minnesota’s only other recent primary, which was not used by the parties to distribute party delegates.

Still other state governments let secretaries of state select candidates for the ballot based on their observation of active candidates, a role Simon said he would not have wanted to play in Minnesota. “I think a filing method makes more sense because that’s what we’re used to. It democratizes the process. But that’s just me,” Simon said.

Two DFL state lawmakers have said they will introduce legislation next session to take authority away from the parties. While Reps. Jamie Long and Ray Dehn, both of Minneapolis, say they think it could be adopted in time for the 2020 primary, Simon said deadlines for ballot design will have come and gone by the Feb. 11 opening of the session.

DFL Party chief Martin said it wasn’t a contentious issue in 2016, and that the parties usually demand some legal authority to veto names of candidates that they don’t consider to be legitimate contenders or even active members of the party.

The biggest demand in 2016, Simon said, was what the parties called “the recordation requirement,” which required separate ballots and for each party to get a list of voters who chose their ballots. Otherwise they would not be allowed by national party rules to take part.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, was the lead member of the Senate on the issue and said she supported the primary in response to the chaos of the 2016 caucuses. The parties gave up the complete control they have over caucuses, but they did insist on deciding many of the details in return for abiding by the results, she said.

The state wanted to have a regularized process for making such an important decision as who would be the president. In return, the parties agreed that it would bind their delegates to the national convention.