Bye-bye to Minnesota’s tradition of September primaries?

In all likelihood, Minnesota will not hold a primary election in September of 2010.

A pending change in federal law will set a new deadline for mailing absentee ballots to soldiers, sailors and others residing overseas. It would be practically impossible for Minnesota to meet this deadline if it continues to hold its primaries on the second Tuesday (after the first Monday) of September, as scheduled under current Minnesota law.

Some legislators have been trying for years to move Minnesota to an earlier primary date. A move to August actually passed in the last session but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (The bill included other measures that Pawlenty disliked, but in his veto message he did specify the August primary as one he opposed.)

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who has been following the situation, said a change in Minnesota’s primary calendar seems inevitable, the only question being how far the date would move up.

State Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, who has sponsored a change to a June primary for the past three sessions, said that he still hopes for that eventually, but his impression is that in 2010 the Legislature will settle on an August date. He said that from what he is hearing from colleagues, the likeliest outcome will an advance of one month, to the second Tuesday after the first Monday in August. That would make Primary Election Day in 2010 August 10 instead of Sept. 14 as currently scheduled.

State Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, who has favored moving the primary to August, said there would be plenty of bipartisan support for that move, if the DFLers don’t put the primary date provision into a bill with other deal-killers.

Instant political analysis
This could have political implications for the biggest race on the 2010 ballot — the one for guv. They are speculative but let’s just set the framework for such speculation.

As the (ginormous) field now stands, several DFL candidates for guv are threatening or planning to run in a primary if they do not receive the DFL endorsement, notably two (Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza) who have the personal financial resources to make an impact. My first assumption is that moving up the primary date would be to the advantage of the DFL endorsee and to the detriment of the primary challengers, since it would shorten the period for the challengers to campaign.

I am not aware of any Republican candidates for guv who are planning to challenge the party’s endorsee. If so, it would appear that moving up the primary date might be to the advantage of the DFL in general. Conventional wisdom holds (and a quick glance at the history seems to support the idea) that the party without a serious primary fight benefits by having the other party spending July, August and the first half of September fighting amongst itself, leaving the eventual nominee broke, battered and exhausted less than two months before the general election, while the other nominee is rested, with money in the bank and a unified party behind him.

Therefore, I assume that advancing the date of the primary would accrue to the benefit of the party that has the serious primary challenge (by giving the nominee more time to recover from the primary before facing the general electorate). If that’s right, moving up the date is more likely to benefit the DFL in the 2010 race.

A couple more details
The likely change in federal law that brings all this about is a provision, slipped into the defense authorization bill by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. The provision requires that absentee ballots be mailed out to potential overseas voters at least 45 days before the general election.

Although the provision’s inclusion in a Defense bill is justified by its impact on armed forces members serving overseas, it will affect all overseas voters. This will certainly make it easier for overseas voters to get their absentee ballots in on time to be counted.

But its larger impact may be to force a change in the calendar for those states with very late primary dates. It may be noteworthy that Schumer’s state, New York, is one of only two that has an even later primary date than Minnesota’s. Schumer, the recently very successful chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is viewed by Repubs as a highly partisan sharp-elbowed operator.

Brod said it does seem odd (I believe her word choice was “interesting”) to have a provision affecting primary dates slipped unnoticed into a Defense Department spending bill. But she still favors moving Minnesota’s date to August. Brod, by the way, was unaware of the pending new federal mandate until I called her, which tells me that this change is not common knowledge even among legislators interested in election matters. (Although my esteemed former colleague Lori Sturdevant has mentioned the Schumer provision in the Strib.)

The Schumer provision has not been controversial in Washington and the Defense Authorization bill is sure to pass.

The 45-day deadline for mailing the ballots would technically fall after Minesota’s traditional primary date, but Ritchie said there would not be enough time to certify the results of a primary election and get ballots printed to meet the deadline. Certainly any primary election that generated a recount would be a disaster under such a schedule.

(On that last point, Ritchie, who has long favored moving up the primary date, has made it one of his “lessons learned” from the lengthy Senate recount. If a primary race generated a long contested recount it could jeopardize the state’s ability to hold a general election on time or would require some pretty extraordinary measures to make it happen. If we were to imagine a primary recount and court contest that took as long as the Franken-Coleman deal, moving the primary up by one month would still not be enough. The question of what would happen in such a case is unsettled.)

In May of this year, when Pawlenty vetoed an omnibus election law bill that would have moved the primary date to August, he complained generally (in his veto message) that the bill was not “bipartisan,” which pretty clear meant that there were too many provisions in it favored by DFLers and opposed by Repubs. He did specifically say that he opposed moving the primary from September to August although the veto letter doesn’t give a reason.

This morning, Pawlenty’s spokester Brian McClung said:

“If federal law is changed to require that Minnesota have an earlier primary, we will follow the federal law.”

Opponents of July and August dates have generally been concerned about the number of voters who would be away on summer vacations. But, Simon, Ritchie and Brod all said that earlier primary date bills have had support and opposition from within both party caucuses.

Simon, who favors a June primary, said the most common objection to that idea has come from rural legislators who worry that they will be tied up in a legislative session until May while back home in their district some challenger is knocking on doors and trying to defeat them in primary while they are unable to defend themselves. Ritchie said that in his experience, the opposition came mostly from Iron Range legislators.

Have a nice day.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 09/01/2009 - 12:24 pm.

    I agree with Simon that there ought to be a June primary. Caucuses are great for parties and party insiders, but they are not democratic.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/01/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    What requires Minnesota to send out absentee ballots to anyone? I ask, because the assumption here is that a new primary date will have to be set, where it is equally plausible to simply not provide absentee ballots in the November election. It certainly makes more sense than making such a major change in the state’s political system for the convenience of a small number of voters.

  3. Submitted by David Broden on 09/01/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    Lets look at this issue a bit differently and arrive in the 21st century. First if we make the primary earlier it does not capture the voters interest more than leaving it where it is in September. A summer primary will loose interest and participation. The cost of the elections and campaign funds will increase both for the primary and for the general election and for those who argue otherwise a bit of looking at the way election costs have escalated and will continue to grow. We need focus on the topics and issues not on time.

    Now to the issue of 45 days. We are not living in horse and buggy days. It is time to move from the paper ballots for those living or outside the US –we can without much real thinking develop a valid and very secure electronic voting system for those citizens.

    There may also be some degree of politics in this whole issue.

    Rather than move the primary I recommend that we move to a modern day communication process using the electronic media. This will make all of us the winners and eliminate the politics while bring in just good common sense.

    Dave Broden

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/01/2009 - 01:09 pm.

    More of the same old same old political attempts to gerrymander the electoral process to give an advantage to one side or another, just like the current dust-up in New York about a successor to Ted.

    It requires 45 days to fax or e-mail a ballot? Give me a break!

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/01/2009 - 01:51 pm.

    It’s been a while since a Kennedy was Senator in New York.

    And the right to cast a ballot is not limited to those with access to electronic communications.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/01/2009 - 02:09 pm.

    Ross W. (#2) I believe the number of absentee voters is actually pretty large. It includes any senior or person with a disability who finds it difficult to get to the polls; any Minnesotan who will be out of town and unable to vote in person; all members of the military AND the diplomatic corps serving anyplace in the world but home, and perhaps others I am not aware of.

  7. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/01/2009 - 11:00 pm.

    It sounds like both major parties are quite comfortable with the late date, and that alone should be enough to convince most Minnesota voters that the primary should be moved up.

    August would be better, but June would be best because it shortens the primary and lengthens the actual campaign.

    The longer the nominees have to campaign, the better the chance they might accidentally say something.

  8. Submitted by Richard Lentz on 09/02/2009 - 01:28 pm.

    Might be worth clarifying how our antiquated caucus system interacts with the primaries.

  9. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/02/2009 - 06:22 pm.

    You’d think with all the news reports recently, and with a brother living in Boston…

    I guess I’d better start watching myself for “senior moments.”

    As for remote balloting, the armed forces do have regular internet access, and MOST of us seniors are internet computer savvy, even if we have to go the library or kiosk to use them: we LOVE to get those e-mails from grandkids, and its cheaper than phone bills. (Those grandkids are the ones who taught many of us.)

    And I suspect, for the same reasons, travelers (including seniors)use the internet, even uploading their digital camera pics now, allowing us stay-at-homes to enjoy their trips day by day.

    In short, I don’t share your concerns about people without access to the internet who might be away from home on election day.

  10. Submitted by Dion Goldman on 09/03/2009 - 12:41 pm.

    If there was IRV for state elections, there would be no need for a primary. But that is another discussion.

    As for “most” seniors using the internet, I don’t see this within my “senior circle.” I would like a survey done to verify that broad assumption. I think you would be enlightened. Access to voting for all is a democratic principle that must be upheld.

    It is odd that those in power are concerned with low participation in an August primary but have no such concern about caucuses being in Feb. or March when bad weather or winter vacationers and snowbirds are left out of this process.

    A June primary would benefit most when you disregard politics as usual.

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/03/2009 - 04:29 pm.


    Why not “walk the block” and check it out?

    Our neighborhood is 3/4 elderly, and only one does not use the internet. Her relatives all live close, and her daughter can help her if need be.

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