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Would having an earlier primary improve turnout, or just further politicize legislative sessions?

MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Rep. Kelly Fenton: “[A June primay] would devote more time to the general election race, allowing more time for voters to hear the difference in the ideas and the opinions between the candidates.”

In a legislative hearing Thursday morning, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon posed an improbable question: “What if we held an election and no one showed up?”

Neither Simon nor anyone else thinks there will be a no-show election, but he noted that, by Minnesota’s own standards, the primary election last August came pretty close. Only about 10 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls, making it the lowest turnout rate in a midterm election in Minnesota in decades. And that was despite having a competitive Republican gubernatorial primary and a high-profile DFL state auditor race on the ballot.

“How can an electorate that normally votes in such high numbers vote in such abysmally low numbers in the primary?” Simon, a DFLer, asked. “There’s something off here about the August primary.” 

Simon was testifying in front of the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee in favor bumping the primary election date to the third week in June, which he says will catch voters before August arrives and Minnesotans are trying to “squeeze every last drop out of summer.”

The more people who show up to vote, the better it is for Democracy, he said. What’s more, if voters dispense with the primary early on, they’ll have more time to get to know the candidates who will grace the general election ballot in November, said Rep. Kelly Fenton, a Republican lawmaker from Woodbury who’s the author of the June primary proposal, and who previously served as deputy chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.

“This would devote more time to the general election race, allowing more time for voters to hear the difference in the ideas and the opinions between the candidates,” Fenton said.

Political momentum

Of course, like with most things in St. Paul, the debate over the issue isn’t just about good policy. Politically, the dynamics seem to be lining up in favor of the change. Republicans are bruising from a harsh defeat of gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson in the general election last fall, after he survived a rare, competitive GOP primary against three other candidates in August. But he was outraised and campaigned by Gov. Mark Dayton, who had the DFL party behind him from day one.

Keith Downey
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
GOP Chair Keith Downey

“On our side, if we would have been able to solidify behind our candidate earlier that would have helped us,” said Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey, who supports a June primary.

The competitive disadvantage of having later primaries is not lost on Democrats, either, who routinely have primary contests for open statewide offices. Some DFLers are already fearing a contentious process in 2018, when Dayton retires and the field will be open on both sides for the governor’s race. 

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin has been pushing for a June primary since the 1990s, and he’s optimistic something could happen this year. Both House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Dayton support the move. 

“There’s more of push now than there’s ever been,” Martin said.

The ‘whippersnapper’ effect

But there are always dissenters, and Minnesota lawmakers have had a hard time picking a month in the past. It was Simon who helped push for the August primary date in the first place, up from September to try and give overseas Minnesota voters — military, diplomats or students, for instance — time to get in their ballots. There’s also a group of Republican state senators who want to move the primary election to March in order to put Minnesota on the radar of presidential hopefuls in 2016, with the idea of building enthusiasm among voters who tend to sit out primaries.

Sec. Steve Simon
Sec. Steve Simon

A total of 18 other states hold their primaries in June, while the earliest primary held last year was on March 4, in Texas. 

Simon said some legislators — particularly those from Greater Minnesota — have privately told him they fear the change would allow “some whippersnapper” to mount a primary challenge against them while they are stuck in St. Paul for the legislative session, which runs from January through mid-May. But Simon says lawmakers typically get the most press during session, and points out that Iowa has a June primary along with a January-May legislative session and hasn’t seen an uptick in competitive primaries.

“I can’t see any evidence that having a June primary on the heels of their legislative session somehow increases primary activity,” Simon said.

Many county officials throughout Minnesota also oppose the move because it would bump into an already busy time of the year. In addition, the change would require a lot of deadlines to be pushed up, such as training of election judges and the date candidates would have to file for office.

And some lawmakers, such as Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, are concerned that a June primary would lead to legislative sessions during which campaign politics had an even greater influence on policy discussions.

“The effect that’s going to have on various legislative bills going forward, just the decorum of the Legislature,” Nelson said. “I have more concern about that than I am worried about someone filing or running against me and knocking me out in the primary.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/13/2015 - 11:02 am.

    Primary season

    For what little it’s worth, I like the idea of a June primary better than either March or August. Putting Minnesota on the presidential map isn’t something over which Minnesotans have much control, so the argument in favor of March, or a date that qualifies as “early” in presidential campaign-speak, doesn’t carry much weight with me. In strictly political terms, since we’re likely to LOSE a seat in the House delegation with the next census, I think it even less likely that presidential candidates are going to spend much time here.

    The argument that resonates most with me is that getting the primary done in June will give voters more opportunity, after the legislative session is over, to pay attention to what various primary candidates are saying, and what policy positions (assuming they actually have policy positions) they’re taking. I do think that August is a little bit late in the game to hold a primary for a November election.

    On the other hand, election season seems already to be perpetual, which is not a positive. I do my best to ignore campaign advertising, especially on TV, but TV ads are by far the most expensive, and lengthening the campaign season by adding a couple months might simply ramp up the already ridiculous cost of campaigning for elective office. Having to spend millions of dollars for a job in Washington that lasts, theoretically at least, two years, seems to me an excellent indication that anything like real democracy has long since departed, and when similar amounts are spent to gain elective office just in this state, adding a couple months to the length of the campaign isn’t going to fine-tune anyone’s message. It’ll just make that message cost more and be delivered more redundantly.

    That said, I’d still prefer June to August, at least for a few election cycles to see what effects, if any, the date of the primary has on the turnout and the outcome. As long as we’re making the change legislatively and not building it into the Constitution, it should be possible to change back to August, or whenever the populace deems it appropriate.

  2. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/13/2015 - 11:19 am.

    Bad move

    Who really wants longer legislative, county, or local races?

  3. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 03/13/2015 - 11:50 am.

    primary

    A June primary would just drag out the election season & raise campaign costs, and it’s already too long. Since June is also a vacation month, I don’t think turnout would be much, if any, better than August. Legislators should concentrate on the session in May, not campaigning. Also, it’s harder for county auditors to move up the election judge training, etc. The problem w/primaries is that many voters do not understand their purpose, so they stay home unless they are party regulars. I don’t think we’ll resolve that by just moving the date.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/13/2015 - 01:43 pm.

    ““How can an electorate that normally votes in such high numbers vote in such abysmally low numbers in the primary?” Simon, a DFLer, asked. “There’s something off here about the August primary.” ”

    Of all the reasons to vote or not to vote, why is the fact that the primary was held in August thought to be the driving issue.

    The real question here, which nobody seems to be making any serious attempt to answer, is why don’t people vote? Being the politically involved person I am, I tend to modify the question, to ask why aren’t the politicians I support attractive enough generally to get people out to vote for them?

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/13/2015 - 02:27 pm.

      You’re asking the right question

      I think the fact that Minnesota holds a caucus AND a primary adds to the to confusion. Those who don’t attend party caucuses, or understand their purpose, may confuse them with primary elections.

  5. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 03/13/2015 - 03:19 pm.

    June Primary

    This is a no brainer..you can’t expect turn out in August, when most people are on vacation.
    June makes the most sense or after school starts.

  6. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 03/13/2015 - 05:12 pm.

    Eliminate partisan primaries

    If you want to improve turnout, eliminate the partisan nature of primaries. There is no reason that the state has to hold partisan primaries. Lets move instead to a general primary – everyone into a single pool of candidates, the top two move on to the general election. This ensures that we don’t end up with minority rule as we did with Gov. Ventura and Gov. Pawlenty, and it encourages every MInnesotan to vote in the primary as it will no longer be seen as an event for the political parties.

  7. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 03/13/2015 - 06:54 pm.

    Support Ranked Choice Voting

    The timing issue would end if ranked choice ballots decided elections. The parties would still be able to endorse candidates on whatever schedule they want. Allowing all who want to campaign for office levels the field for the whippersnapers and incumbents. Ranked choice ballots will also solve the problem of low turnout in primaries and non-presidential elections.

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