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A look at pros and cons of moving up state primaries

Will voting in early August instead of early September have any substantial impact on the state of politics in Minnesota?

A look at the pros and cons of moving up primaries
MinnPost photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
One upside of August primaries: more leaves on trees than on the ground.

A bill that will change the date of primary voting in Minnesota has passed the House and Senate and is headed for the desk of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is expected to sign the legislation.

The simple stats are that Minnesotans will now do their primary voting on the second Tuesday in August — meaning Aug. 10 this year, rather than on Sept. 14, as originally scheduled. The bill also expands the time available for absentee voting from 30 to 45 days and allows for a 45-day period for special elections for federal office.

The bill, which had bipartisan support, keeps Minnesota in line with the recently enacted federal legislation, which was designed to encourage participation of military personnel, and others, who are overseas.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, the chief author of the senate bill, said that nationally in 2008 nearly 400,000 of the absentee ballots cast by overseas voters were not counted because of tighter voter restrictions.

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But Bonoff thinks  voting in August instead of September might also ratchet up the competitiveness of  the state’s primary races.

She used her own campaign for the 3rd District U.S. House seat as an example.

Bonoff, you’ll recall, lost DFL endorsement in 2008 to little-known but highly organized Ashwin Madia. Though many of her supporters thought her moderate political profile fit the district better than Madia’s, the decision was made not to run in a primary race. Madia went on to lose the general election to Republican Erik Paulsen.

Revisiting a 2008 decision
With this earlier primary date, Bonoff said, her decision not to run in the primary might have been different.

“It would have mattered,” said Bonoff of the August primary. “When I looked at the pros and cons of running in a September primary, it just didn’t seem possible that you could raise enough money for the primary, win, and then come back again, raise more money and win the general election.”

State Sen. Terri Bonoff
State Sen. Terri Bonoff

The extra month is major, Bonoff said, though it falls short of what she and some other legislators wanted.

Initially, the desire was to move the primary to June. But rural legislators especially were opposed to the change. They feared being stuck in St. Paul for the session, while primary foes were back in the home district, campaigning away.

So the compromise is August, which fits a federal requirement that there’s time for military personnel and other overseas votes to get their absentee ballots counted before a general election.

“I think June would have been better, but a month makes a big difference,” said Bonoff.

Mike Ciresi, who made an unsuccessful bid against Al Franken to win DFL endorsement in the Senate race in 2008, says he thinks the August change might have some impact in how candidates approach their campaigns. There might be more likelihood that they would not promise to abide by endorsement, Ciresi said.

In a perfect candidate-selection process, Ciresi believes an approach that many good-government types have proposed would best serve Minnesota. In that process, there would be a June primary, with the party caucus systems and conventions serving as a vetting process for a number of candidates.

“A candidate would have to get 10 or 15 percent (of the delegate support) at the convention,’’ Ciresi said, “and then would be eligible for a June primary. That vetting process still gives the party power but it gives more than the 2,500 people (convention delegates) the chance to make the final choice.’’

At one level, Ciresi said, the caucus system is excellent. It puts candidates in the field for one-on-one conversations with potential delegates. Too often, though, he said, those activists don’t represent a mainstream Minnesota view.

But merely moving the primary a month, Ciresi thinks the candidate who doesn’t promise to abide by endorsement is way behind a political eight ball.

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Of course, even the old date has seldom hampered DFLers from hammering one another in primaries.

Bypassing endorsements
This year’s race among DFLers to see who is going to be on the ballot would not have been decided until a primary no matter the date. Almost from the time he entered the governor’s race, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton made it clear he was bypassing the endorsement convention and heading straight to the primary. Matt Entenza and Susan Gaertner also have said they’ll go to the primary.

Does the new date matter to candidates such as Dayton?

“It changes turnout,” said Dana Anderson, Dayton’s campaign manager. “We expect a lower turnout (in August). But that only means everyone is going to have to campaign harder to get their supporters out.”

The lower-turnout theory, by the way, is based on the belief that thousands of Minnesotans are enjoying vacations “Up North” and elsewhere in the late days of summer. On the other hand, Anderson admitted that seniors, an important Dayton base, are less likely to be vacationing than younger voters.

“No secret he has strong support among seniors,” she said.

Tony Sutton, chairman of the state Republican Party, things the “Up North” phenomenon is overstated.


Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

“There’s some truth to it,” said Sutton, “but the percentage of people who go away is very small compared to those who stay at home.”

Voters given more time to think
Sutton thinks the big advantage to moving the primary date is that it gives voters more time to consider the candidates leading up to the general election.

“I always have thought it was odd in the entire process, the shortest time period was between the primary and the general election,” Sutton said. “In many ways, I think this (August) is the perfect time. It gives plenty of time for party processes and more time leading up to the general election for candidates to define themselves.”

Unlike Bonoff, Sutton doesn’t think that the new date will encourage more Republicans to challenge endorsed candidates in the primary.

Because both parties have moved their conventions up a month — from late May-early June to late April-early May — Sutton said there’ll still be ample time for the parties to work for their endorsed candidates.

And the date change does nothing to change presidential politics in Minnesota. Though every four years there are voices calling for Minnesota political parties to move from a caucus system to a presidential primary, the caucuses will prevail, Sutton said.

“I’m old-school,” said Sutton. “The party should pick its candidates. I think it (the caucus system) fits who we are.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.