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Why Minnesota’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary voting (no, really) might matter more than you think

No state has a vote-by-mail start as early as Minnesota, said state DFL party chair Ken Martin, shortly after submitting the official list of candidates who will appear on the Democratic primary ballot — all 15 of them.

Ken Martin
DFL party chair Ken Martin submitting the official list of candidates who will appear on the Democratic primary ballot.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Sorry Iowa.

Take a backseat New Hampshire.

Though those states get most of the attention of presidential candidates and the political reporters of America, their citizens will not have the distinction of casting the first vote to determine the Democratic nominee for president.

Instead, that claim to fame will go to a state that values superlatives more than most. Due to Minnesota’s generous pre-election absentee balloting rules — voters can cast a ballot 46 days prior to election day, which translates to Jan. 17, 2020 — whichever Minnesotan mails their ballot first will, in fact, be the first vote to count anywhere in the country. 

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(The same honor will go to a Republican voter, as well, but with President Trump being the only name on the state GOP ballot — pending a legal challenge — the drama on that side of the primary is quite a bit less.)

Being first might be one way for Minnesota to draw attention in the midst of the March 3 Super Tuesday balloting, when 14 states will hold party primaries. California votes that day. So does Massachusetts and Texas and Virginia and Colorado and even Maine. 

But none has a vote-by-mail start as early as Minnesota, said state DFL party chair Ken Martin, who spoke to reporters Tuesday, shortly after submitting the official list of candidates who will appear on the Democratic primary ballot — all 15 of them (plus a spot to vote for uncommitted delegates).

“Minnesota is the very first state, and I don’t think the presidentials were tracking this until late summer, early fall,” Martin said. “We were at a meeting in San Francisco and I mentioned this to many of the campaigns and their eyes bugged out. I don’t think they realized our early vote requirements put us first in the nation.”

Under the state’s new presidential primary law, the party chairs are empowered to decide which candidates will appear on the ballot. State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan has already decided that Trump will be the only name, though she has said she will ask Secretary of State Steve Simon to include a line for write-ins.

Martin went in the other direction; he included all candidates who went through a party process to request ballot access: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Michael R. Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John K. Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang. (Voters will also be able to to vote “uncommitted,” for delegates who can vote for any candidate at the national convention.)

To qualify for any of the state’s 92 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, candidates must win at least 15 percent of the vote in the primary. Then, those who have cleared that threshold will divide up the delegates based on their share of the vote. (Republicans in Minnesota will use a winner take all format for their 34 delegates to the Republican National Convention, which takes place in Charlotte August 24-27).

A poster of candidates at Martin’s press conference displayed the candidates in alphabetical order by first name, a method of sorting that made Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar first. But that was just for display purposes. Actual ballot placement is randomized. The secretary of state works with county election officials to rotate candidates names by precinct with the goal of having each candidate listed first on an equal number of ballots.

Martin said he thinks Minnesota will be important in the nomination process despite being on a crowded Super Tuesday ballot, and not just because of those first-in-the-nation voters. Because of its tradition of voting for Democratic candidates, it has more delegates than other states with larger populations.

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And, Martin argues, the first four states won’t do as much to winnow the field as has happened in the past. Less than 4 percent of delegates will be awarded in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina while 34 percent will be awarded on Super Tuesday, with another 27 percent over the rest of March.

Still, it is possible if not likely that some of the candidates appearing on the Minnesota ballot will have withdrawn by the time mail ballots are cast. Under state law, however, voters can “claw back” their mailed ballot until seven days before the March 3 election and recast their ballots if they picked a candidate who dropped out.

Ken Martin
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A poster of candidates at Ken Martin’s press conference displayed the candidates in alphabetical order by first name, a method of sorting that made Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar first.
In addition to being state party chair, Martin is president of the Association of State Democratic Committees and is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. It was in those roles that he was a lead author of new party nomination rules that lessened the clout of so-called super delegates, the state party officials, members of Congress, Democratic governors, members of the Democratic National Committee and distinguished party members like former Vice President Walter Mondale who become delegates automatically. Minnesota has 16 of them. In 2016, there were complaints from supporters of Bernie Sanders that super delegates canted the process toward Hillary Clinton.

During this cycle, what are now called “automatic” delegates don’t vote in the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, which will take place in Milwaukee July 13-16. Only if the convention fails to nominate a candidate on the first ballot will automatic delegates take part.

Martin said he hopes that doesn’t happen. “I really hope that this isn’t a brokered convention, because if it gets to the second round it is likely that these automatic delegates will decide who the nominee is,” Martin said. “That was not the intent of the proposal that I championed and authored, which was to lesson the influence of super delegates — automatic delegates — to the convention.

“I’m really worried about that, as the author of it. I’m distressed by the concept that we could get to a second ballot and you could have 700-some-odd automatic delegates swing en masse toward one candidate and ultimately determine who the nominee is,” Martin said.