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Legislators poised to approve presidential primary for Minnesota

Part of the proposal’s success can be attributed to timing: Memories of the long lines and chaos experienced at the state’s March 1 caucuses are still fresh. 

State Sen. Ann Rest: “The 2016 precinct caucuses have taken us to another level that we really don't want to see repeated.”
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Ann Rest doesn’t think a vote for the most “powerful and important person in the world” should be cast on a Post-it note in a one-hour window inside a crammed school gymnasium.

“We can do better than that,” said the DFL senator from New Hope.

This year, Rest is hardly alone: Minnesota lawmakers are poised to pass a major change to the state’s election system, moving the state from a caucus to a primary model in presidential elections for the first time in more than two decades. In a short and contentious legislative session, where most predicted little to nothing would be accomplished, the proposal is moving quickly, and with plenty of bipartisan support. Rest, the chief sponsor of the proposal in the Senate, has earned the support of both party leaders in the upper chamber, and a key Republican committee chair is moving the bill along in the House. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has already said he would sign the proposal if it reaches his desk. 

Part of its success so far can be attributed to timing: Still fresh are the memories of the long lines and frustration experienced at Minnesota’s caucuses on March 1, when hundreds of thousands of people turned up to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. On the Republican side, more than 114,000 people showed up to caucus, shattering previous records, and the DFL came close to breaking its own record, with about 207,000 caucus participants. Neither party was expecting anything like it, and many caucus locations were overwhelmed by the turnout. Voters were told to shove ballots into empty beer boxes or anything they could find; some just turned around and went home. 

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“The 2016 precinct caucuses have taken us to another level that we really don’t want to see repeated,” Rest said. “If we try and continue to operate a system where our capacity to encourage people to participate is blown away by the people who are eager to participate, it seems to me we end up discouraging people.”

A hybrid system

This isn’t the first time Minnesota legislators have discussed moving toward a primary system. In the past, though, legislative efforts failed due to lack of support from political party leaders, who tend to favor caucuses. While party-run caucuses only last a few hours, they help mobilize thousands of volunteers, and participants get involved by electing local leadership and making contributions to party platforms.

This time around, lawmakers are proposing a hybrid model: Giving voters only interested in the presidential election the flexibility and ease of a day-long primary, while also letting political parties and activists hold caucuses for state races one week later. In non-presidential years, the parties would simply hold regular caucuses. After initially signaling some reluctance, both party chairs are now amenable to the change. 

Keith Downey
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Keith Downey

“The long lines, short voting window, and shortages of ballots and registration sheets made for a very confusing and dispiriting experience,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “We’ve been told that there were thousands more Minnesotans who were so frustrated that they turned around and left without participating in the process. That is no way to welcome people to our party or to ensure that their right to participate is guaranteed.” 

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said the idea of using the Minnesota Secretary of State’s election infrastructure to help administer the much more high-profile presidential balloting while also allowing parties to organize on local issues is “conceptually appealing.” “How that could work and how to combine the two is a worthy discussion,” he said. 

That’s not to say everyone is entirely convinced. Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, prefers the neighborly experience of going to caucus and building up political parties. Caucuses also involve discussions about issues and candidates, whereas a primary is a much more solitary affair. 

“That’s part of the reason I like the caucus system, people dig in and learn the issues and help shape what their party believes,” Gazelka said. “That’s the caucus system.”

Lessons from past primaries

The state has held four presidential primaries in the past, in 1916, 1952, 1956 and most recently in 1992. That year, Bill Clinton was picked by the state’s Democrats, but the results weren’t binding, and incumbent president George H.W. Bush didn’t draw out many Republicans to cast ballots. Roughly 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots that year, similar to this year’s caucuses, and the results were mostly ignored nationally. It wasn’t long before the state suspended the primary, and in 2000 lawmakers officially went back to the caucus system.

Under Rest’s proposal, delegates will be bound by the primary results. Minnesota is one of only 13 states and three territories that use the caucus system to determine how party delegates will be allotted at the national convention.

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Steve Simon
Steve Simon

“Turnout for its own sake is good, but it’s also about access,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who supports the bill and testified on its behalf. “If turnout doesn’t move a millimeter, [the primary] still affords people more opportunities to vote. It’s not just one hour every four years.” 

After the 1992 election, local officials also complained about the cost of administering the primaries, estimating they spent $10 for every vote cast. Rest wants to tackle that problem on the front end this time, amending her bill in a hearing Wednesday evening to allocate $3.6 million to help local governments handle a presidential primary, and another $111,000 for the Secretary of State’s office for additional computer programing costs. 

Rest’s bill passed easily out of the State Departments and Veterans Budget Division of the Finance Committee Wednesday evening. It will head to the full Senate Finance Committee, the last stop before a floor vote. The House bill, authored by House Government Operations and Elections Policy Chair Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, is heading for the Ways and Means Committee before going to the full floor for a vote.

Gazelka was the only person to vote against the primary bill. He said if things don’t go as planned in 2020, the first year the primary proposal would be applicable, he and other legislators have the option to bring a bill to go back to a caucus system.

“I just want to make sure our people are as informed as they could possibly be,” Gazelka said. “I know we’ve changed back-and-forth between caucus and primaries over the decades, and it hasn’t been since 1992. But if we do move forward, I might be carrying a bill in a number of years saying let’s go back.”