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Minnesota’s primary problem: It’s time for a change (or two)

In August, Minnesotans are checked out from politics and elections.

Once again, and as predicted, voter turnout in Minnesota’s primary election was shockingly low – preliminary numbers show the final tally hovering around a meager 10 percent or less of all eligible voters in the state.

Given this year’s unique, contested Republican primary election between four candidates for governor, this is concerning. But a state that prides itself on civic engagement and participation, such low voter turnout is particularly problematic. We’re usually the cream of the crop in voter participation – in 2008 and 2012, we had the highest voter turnout in the country: 78 percent and 76 percent of eligible voters, respectively, cast ballots in the presidential election.

So, why is it that a state as civically engaged as ours can’t seem to figure out or embrace the primary? For starters, timing matters: In the middle of August, we’re checked out from politics and elections. We’re not ready for the all-too-common mudslinging, name-calling, and “he said, she said.” We’re busy soaking up the already waning days of summer by spending time with family at the lake, enjoying a backyard barbecue with friends and neighbors, or plotting out our itinerary for a day at the State Fair (where we’ll inevitably be bombarded by political campaigns anyway).  

Secondly, unendorsed campaigns are often reluctant to move on to the primary because of intense pressure to “abide by the endorsement” from partisan activists. DFL activists did this to now-Gov. Mark Dayton in 2010 when he chose to run in the primary against their then-endorsed candidate, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and GOP activists were similarly angered this year when GOP candidates for U.S. Senate and governor said they would carry on through the primary. I’m glad to see an increase in candidates willing to give voters more choice and go through the primary process; now, we need to ensure that more than an abysmal 10 percent of voters actually participate.

How about a June primary?

An earlier primary – and ranked-choice voting – might just be the way to do that. Moving the primary to June, for example, would create a more hospitable environment for that dialogue between candidates of the same party to occur on a condensed timeline, decreasing the time that those candidates spend bickering inside their own party. The end result being that candidates spend more time talking about the issues on the campaign trail with the opponent they’ll actually face on the ballot.

Pairing said earlier primary with ranked-choice voting – and enabling that likely increase in primary voters to rank their choices on the ballot – would also have a positive impact. Tuesday’s primary results show a major split in the Republican Party: Jeff Johnson won, but with barely 30 percent of the vote – meaning that 70 percent of Republican primary voters did not support him.

Among candidates of the same party, voters likely have a favorite – but they also probably have a second or third choice, too. By embracing those choices, we’re much more likely to see both Republican and Democratic candidates on the ballot in November who’ve won consensus support from their own party and are best-suited to run strong, substantive campaigns.

Consider this: Given that all four Republican candidates for governor finished within 10 points of each other and none was even remotely close to securing majority support, would the final results have been different if we’d known what voters’ second choices were? Or, if they were the same, wouldn’t it be a good thing for Republicans to know decidedly that Jeff Johnson had secured majority support from a broader array of Republicans?

Surprisingly simple process

My first personal experience using ranked-choice voting was in St. Paul’s municipal elections in 2013. The process was surprisingly simple for any voter to understand, and the numbers from Minneapolis’ heated mayoral campaign last year back that up: More than 75 percent of all voters ranked all three choices on their ballot, and two-thirds of voters across all age, ethnic, income, and education groups said they liked ranked-choice voting and want to continue using it.

I know there are those who still aren’t sure about ranked-choice voting – and understandably so. It’s easy to be resistant to changing how our elections are run because we’re comfortable with the current process, despite its shortcomings. We know how it works, and change means investing precious extra time that isn’t always readily available.

But in a state that takes voting very seriously – and prides itself on civic involvement – we must admit when we have a problem. Complacency isn’t an option when 90 percent of eligible voters either choose not to participate in the primary elections, or worse, don’t even know that they exist. As the saying goes, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” I firmly believe that to be true – but if we can make the option to show up a little more logical and easy, why wouldn’t we? Democracy should not be inaccessible.

Moving the primary to June is long overdue – and while we’re making improvements, let’s give primary voters the option to really vote their conscience by ranking their choices on the ballot.

Jake Loesch is the former communications director for Minnesotans United, the campaign that won the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. He has previously worked for the Republican Party of Minnesota and the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus, and now consults with United Strategies. 


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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 08/14/2014 - 08:55 am.


    Moving the primary to June is something only politicos want. I don’t think most people want electioneering to stretch out for even longer than it already does.

    • Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 08/14/2014 - 10:04 am.


      If anything, I’d move it later than August – like after Labor Day. The election season hardly needs to be months long. We’ve already been blasted over and over again by campaign lit and an earlier start date will just result in a numbed and indifferent electorate.

      • Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 08/14/2014 - 02:30 pm.

        Overseas General Election Voters

        The Primary was moved to allow a full 46 days for absentee voting almost guaranteeing that overseas voters will be able to vote. If the choice is the 2nd Tuesday in August vs the 1st Tuesday in June, give me June. It is before people leave for vacation.

  2. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 08/14/2014 - 08:56 am.


    From a voter standpoint I would like to see open primaries where any registered voter can cross party lines. As a candidate I would like to see primaries in March.

    As it currently stands in the closed primary, the endorsement process is really handled by a very select few of party leaders. Those leaders which can be as few as five swing the full endorsement committee to their select candidate. During the endorsement process each candidate is required to promise not to move on to the general election if not endorsed. The endorsement brings the full weight of the party and finances to the candidate that in all reality was selected by those four or five key party members. Only someone with significant name recognition and money can then compete within that party to move on to the general election if they wish to be competitive. Open primaries would allow for this process to be more responsive to the voters at large with more and better choices.

    A March primary would allow candidates to know whether they will be viable for moving into the general election. Candidates have already spent thousands of dollars on campaigns by the time the current primary arrives and it would save both the candidate and their supporters time to develop coalitions that will more represent the party as a whole. It would also make the endorsement processes much sooner allowing more time for candidates to concentrate on policies and solutions to current problems being faced in today’s society.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/14/2014 - 04:24 pm.

      We do have an open primary

      The current process, like it or not, is an open primary. It’s lousy. I don’t like the early primary because voters haven’t tuned in yet. September had that virtue, but it didn’t work for overseas absentee voters and there would be little hope a recount could be done in time for the general election.

      The endorsement process isn’t handled by a few select party leaders. That’s just backwards. Anyone who cares to show up gets as much to say as anyone else.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/14/2014 - 09:29 am.

    The problem with open primaries

    is that Party A can use them to sabotage Party B.

    Suppose Party A has a legislator (let’s call him Placeholder) who decides to retire after many years. Party A has a likely replacement in a young city council member (let’s call him Hotshot) who is popular with constituents, gets things done, and works well across party lines. However, there’s also a Party A old-timer who thinks that he deserves the nomination simply because he’s been around so long, even though he has no particular qualifications, has been noticeably stupid on many occasions, and has alienated a lot of people (let’s call him Blobbo).

    In a closed primary, Hotshot will get most of the votes from Party A, as he should.

    In an open primary, members of Party B will be sorely tempted to cross over and vote for Blobbo en masse, especially if their own candidate (let’s call him Mediocrity) is uncontested.

    Since this is a primary, many Party A voters will ignore it, while Party B voters will be motivated to knock Hotshot out of the race. The result is that Blobbo wins the Party A primary and goes up against Mediocrity, who looks good in comparison.

    Political parties have the right to choose their own nominees. If you want to help choose the candidates, affiliate with a party.

  4. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 08/14/2014 - 11:12 am.

    Scheduling problem

    Moving the primary to June puts the primary season into the legislative session. Since the session is polarized enough, I don’t think it would be prudent to add active electioneering to the session, especially to those most contentious final days.

    Perhaps the lackluster primary turnout is less of a scheduling issue and more of a response (or lack thereof) to the offered choices.

    There may be alternate fixes available besides moving the primary again.

  5. Submitted by Jim Meffert on 08/14/2014 - 11:30 am.

    How about

    a modified California model? Open primary with the top two vote getters moving on to the general election regardless of party. RCV could be used in the primary process.

    This might keep some of the candidates in high index districts (strong R or strong D) focussed on their own constituents during the general election. Competitive general elections are a good thing. Even if it is two Republicans or two Democrats facing each other in November.

  6. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 08/14/2014 - 01:24 pm.

    We HAVE open primaries

    To Mr Reynolds: Minnesota already has “open primaries.” Any voter can vote in the primary of any party listed on the ballot. You don’t have to tell anyone which party’s primary you voted in. (You have to vote in only one of the party-columns, of course — you can’t vote for DFL and GOP candidates at the same time.)

    If by “open primary” you mean letting all voters vote the the candidates of all parties, then you might as well abolish the primary election altogether and institute Ranked Choice Voting (fka Instant Runoff Voting).

  7. Submitted by Chris Farmer-Lies on 08/14/2014 - 03:48 pm.

    Happy to see such a well-written piece by my former colleague – great work, Jake!

  8. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/14/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    What’s different about Minnesota

    The odd thing about Minnesota’s system is that the party conventions are purely advisory. Other states require some degree of support at the convention, like letting a candidate who gets a 60% supermajority skip the primary, requiring a minimum level of support to qualify for the primary ballot, or holding the primary first and letting the convention resolve it when there’s no clear winner. So parties don’t have to work for their endorsees like they do in Minnesota. If we want to get rid of the idea that primary challengers have somehow attacked their own party, then make the convention result in some way binding.

    Also get rid of open primaries. If someone won’t support a party even so far as to select it on their voter registration form, then they shouldn’t get a say in picking the candidates. All the open primary does is encourage sabotage by voting in the other party’s primary when yours doesn’t have a contest.

  9. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 08/15/2014 - 04:54 am.

    If it were up to me..

    I would move the general election to April 16.

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