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Secretary of State proposes exempting presidential primary lists from Minnesota’s public disclosure laws

Secretary of State Steve Simon
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Secretary of State Steve Simon’s solution to address any voter concerns about revealing party preference is to make voter lists exempt from disclosure under the state Data Practices Act.

Minnesota voters who don’t like revealing which party they support will have two choices when the state shifts to a statewide presidential preference primary in 2020: they can surrender those concerns; or they can not vote.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is proposing a change that might soften worries about choice No. 1 in hopes that fewer voters opt for choice No. 2.

Under a state law adopted in 2016 — and unlike in every other primary the state holds — registered voters will have to tell election officials which party they belong to, at least for the day of the presidential primary. Which of the candidates from that party a voter chooses will remain secret; which party you designated will not.

As the law is currently written, that information be available to anyone who asks. And people will ask because such a list of party preferences is valuable to political parties, candidates, political action committees and even to non-partisan opinion pollsters who rely on party registration and preference data to test the accuracy of their sampling.

This unusual set of primary rules — at least for Minnesota, which doesn’t require voters to register by party or as independent — comes courtesy of the state and national political parties, which insist on such disclosures. They say it is meant to prevent mischief makers from crossing over to impact the other party’s process as well as to build the party’s strength. (Whether such mischief-making actually occurs — or if it does, in quantities that make any difference — is unverified. The parties, however, think it does.)

Simon’s solution to address any voter concerns about revealing party preference is to make the those voter lists exempt from disclosure under the state Data Practices Act. But then, to satisfy the demands of the parties, he will also give each of them their lists. That would also apply to the two marijuana legalization parties — if they choose to take part — since they gained major party status as a result of winning at least 5 percent of the vote in the most recent statewide election.

Simon compared such lists to the sign-in sheets that major parties use at precinct caucuses to record the names and contact information of those taking part. The parties could do whatever they want with that data: keep it for their own campaign and fundraising purposes, share it with allies and candidates; or even publish it. But they are unlikely to give away for free something so valuable. Still, it could be used to decide whether a phone call, text, doorknock or mailed solicitation would be sent a voter’s way or not.

Simon isn’t done with ideas for tinkering with the state’s new presidential primary law, however. The soon-to-be-second term secretary of state is also concerned about the costs of the primary for local governments around the state. That concern was echoed Thursday by Scott County Auditor Cynthia Geis, who is also the legislative chair for the Minnesota Association of County Officers. The way the statute is written, all of the costs incurred from holding the primary might not be reimbursable.

Simon said that holding the primary by mail only would save money and relieve those skittish about revealing their party preference. Voters would still have to declare a preference, but it would be done at the kitchen table, not at a polling place table in front of other humans. But that change would require legislative approval plus a signature from Gov.-elect Tim Walz.

Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope) said the primary bill in 2016 was a compromise with the Republican and DFL parties, which retain control over which candidates get nominated for president. “This election is taken in order to remove the chaos that surrounded the caucus system in both parties in 2016,” Rest said. “The trade off was [voters] having to ask for a particular party’s ballot and having that information be public. That’s what the national parties required to support and move toward a presidential primary.”

She said Simon will need to come up with a secure method to transfer that data to the parties, “but your neighbor is not going to know what ballot you chose.”

Minnesota state DFL Chair Ken Martin said he agrees with Simon that voter lists should not be available to the public. But he said another problem with current state law is that the DFL could get a copy of the GOP list and vice versa.

The two parties asked for and supported the presidential primary bill in 2016 as a means of making the process more accessible and more transparent than the precinct caucuses earlier in that year. But Martin said the it was clear that the goal was to have the process remain controlled by the parties.

“Because it’s a nominating process still, both of our national rules require that we receive a roster of people who actually vote,” Martin said. He said it replaces the caucus sign-in that requires people to assert in writing that they generally agree with the principles of the party. “Without the list, we would be in violation of our national party charter,” Martin said.

State Sen. Anne Rest
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Ann Rest said the primary bill in 2016 was a compromise with the Republican and DFL parties, which retain control over which candidates get nominated for president.
In addition to providing vote counts to decide how many state delegates go to each of the party’s candidates, Martin said it is a party building exercise: identifying voters interested in the party and its candidates and working to keep them involved. “We would never agree to a situation where people who participated in our process, we wouldn’t be able to then engage in the rest of the process,” he said.

State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said she is not in favor of making the voter lists private, nor does she support an all-mail presidential primary. “It’s important that we have transparency and increase transparency for voters while ensuring that we maintain an election system that won’t be exploited or abused by any voter or group of voters,” Carnahan said.“I feel like this move takes away that transparency.

“I don’t see how minimizing transparency is a positive step as it relates to election,” she said.

Carnahan said Simon had raised the idea of a vote-by-mail-only presidential primary during a meeting with her and Martin in December. After hearing the proposal, however, Carnahan said the party would not be in support. “We already have an election system that works and people take pride and are encouraged to go cast their vote in person and put their ballot in the machine, and I don’t see why we’d take that away,” Carnahan said.

Past governors have insisted that changes to election law be bipartisan. While no Republicans stood with Simon Thursday, he said he expects to have bipartisan sponsorship. Yet Carnahan’s opposition to the primary changes makes it more difficult to pass them with significant GOP support.

Other election proposals

Changes to the presidential primary law weren’t the only election proposals Simon unveiled at the state capitol Thursday.

He said he hopes Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) and House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) will follow through on statements that they will quickly authorize the state to accept $6.6 million in federal money to beef up election security. The money, meant as a response to attempts by Russia to gain access to voting systems, was one of the casualties of the end-of-session chaos and governor vetoes.

Simon said he also supports efforts by groups such as the Restore the Vote Coalition that seeks to get released felons back on the voter rolls, a move that could impact 60,000 residents who have served their sentences for crimes committed (but who remain on probation or supervised release). Minnesota would be the 17th state to return voting rights to people as soon as they are released back into their communities.

“Minnesotans, I believe, believe in second chances and we believe in forgiveness,” Simon said of the felon restoration issue. “And restoring the right to vote at the end of a prison term will give real opportunities to those who have left prison behind to become full members of their communities.”

Finally, Simon also wants Minnesota to become the 16th state to automatically sign eligible people up to vote when they get drivers new licenses or renew current licenses.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/04/2019 - 11:25 am.

    Mail in ballots is a bad idea. Way too many opportunities for fraud. Looks like the parties have way too much power in this area. This is why George Washington warned about them. As for party registration, I can see how one party may go vote in the other party’s primary to affect the outcome if their own candidate is a lock already. How much of that happens I doubt anyone knows.

    I would suggest a system where every voter present an ID in person proving they are eligible to vote and cast their ballot in person and put it in the tally machine in person. Then get inked so there is no chance they can vote again elsewhere. Those who physically can’t get to a polling place could use a mail in ballot system. Voting should also be done the day of the election. Early voting should be limited to those who can’t physically be at the polls on Election Day.

    If we could get rid of parties and have candidates that run on specific policies/platforms that would be better still.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 12:48 pm.

      Sorry Bob, the country is moving beyond voter suppression in favor of ballot access.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/04/2019 - 03:24 pm.

        Nothing in my comment has anything to do with voter suppression. Voting has very big consequences and should be as secure as possible. Showing a photo ID (which you can get for free from the State when voter id laws are passed) should be a no brainer. Only US citizens are legally allowed to vote and they can all get an ID card.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 05:04 pm.

          I’m honestly surprised the MinnPost mods continue to allow this tripe to be posted.

          Underlying documents are required to get a state ID. Would you have the state pay for those too?

          One such document is a certified birth certificate. If I must get my birth certificate from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, will the state pay my travel costs and reimburse me for time off work? If I need a court to issue proof of name change, will the state pay for that?

          Bob, we’re onto this scam of “the IDs are issued free!” nonsense. Enacting barriers to the ballot box is voter suppression, pure and simple.

          In person voter fraud is extremely rare. Now let’s move on.

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/04/2019 - 10:20 pm.

            Every US citizen has or should have a birth certificate. You can mail a letter or call and have a copy sent to you for a few bucks. Also, other forms of ID are accepted in states that have Voter ID laws. You only vote once every 2 years at most.. it takes but a few minutes out of your day to get a valid form of ID that can be used for voting.

            If you can afford to buy cigarettes or a Starbucks coffee etc.. you can afford to get a copy of your records and get a State approved ID. Esp since most people already have a state issued drivers license and a birth certificate.

            It’s trivial to obtain an ID so there is no acceptable excuse to not have one unless you are in a coma or something of that nature.

            • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/05/2019 - 11:08 am.

              There counties that require one to be present to get a certified copy of a birth certificate. There are some geographically large counties in this country. It can be very difficult for hard working tax payers, who pay the freight in the country, to take uncompensated time off work to go to a government office during normal working hours . That makes your idea a means test for voters.

              Your suggestion that this is not a barrier to to voting is either naive or disingenuous. Since you are now aware of it, that leaves only one possibility from here on out.

              Given the fraud that has been perpetuated on Georgia voters, perfect match to be specific, shows how the idea that this is all so simple is a lie.

              • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/06/2019 - 10:57 am.

                I find it EXREMELY difficult to believe that there are any places in the US that require you to personally present to get a certified copy of a birth certificate. Not only is this an expensive proposition for anyone who is not in the area, but it can be an impossibility for someone who his hospitalized or incapacitated. If you know of such a place please post the details.

            • Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 01/07/2019 - 02:45 pm.

              There are people living in our communities who don not know where they were born. A longtime neighbor who is now in a nursing home only knows that she born in Iowa, Illinois or Indiana because her parents moved around a lot during the depression. A former colleague who was told he was born in California during WWII said his parents never bothered to get a birth certificate and registered him a “Baby Smith” because they were trying to “stay under the radar”. There are more stories like this.

        • Submitted by ian wade on 01/05/2019 - 02:45 am.

          Dude, EVERYTHING in your comment has to do with voter suppression. Suppression of votes is a core tenet of the GOP. You can’t win without it.

    • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 01/05/2019 - 09:51 am.

      Bob Barnes and Chicken Little may believe the sky will fall if we have all-mail elections, but it doesn’t happen. Before I moved to Minnesota, I lived in Oregon. All mail-in ballots. Worked like clockwork. Limited the political ads blanketing the media. Never a hint of fraud that I can remember. Ask any Oregonian (except maybe those who favor voter suppression) if they would go back to polling in person. Not a chance. Much as I enjoy serving as an election judge, I hope we catch up. The primaries would be a good time for a test run.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/04/2019 - 11:26 am.

    This is ridiculous. If we have primary elections, we shouldn’t be required to indicate our party affiliation. What about independent voters? They should be allowed to vote in the primary like anyone else.

    Why have special rules for the parties. If the info is going to be public, it should be available to everyone. If not, NO ONE.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/04/2019 - 11:32 am.

    This is insane. The privacy of one’s vote should never be sacrificed to the desires of political parties. Rather than change our laws, let the parties change their policies.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 12:46 pm.

      I say let the parties choose their candidates however they want, and don’t make the tax payers pick up the tab for primary elections at all. These are private, non-governmental organizations. If you don’t like who or how they nominate, don’t vote for their candidates in the general election.

      We are the only country that has these low turnout elections.

    • Submitted by Darryl Carter on 01/04/2019 - 01:36 pm.

      Amen !

  4. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 01/04/2019 - 12:12 pm.

    What seems to be lost for some is that primaries are not general elections;. No one gets elected to anything in a Primary. Primaries determine who gets on the general election ballot under a particular party’s name because voters who support that party are doing the choosing. It makes sense that the parties then get to know who their supporters are.

    It’s true that people may ask for a ballot from a party they do not support just to mess up that party’s primary (as Rush Limbaugh and other extremist right wingers encourage). Hopefully that form of dishonest cynical voting will wane over time along with other GOP tactics like voter suppression, voter ID, caging, purging and the many other methods the GOP uses to discourage or prevent voting.

    These use of these tactics suggest that the only thing the GOP seems to fear are voters.

    • Submitted by Darryl Carter on 01/04/2019 - 01:41 pm.

      The entire Presidential candidate selection non-system should be replaced, by one-a-month, time zone-based, universal participation, NON-PARTISAN primaries, commencing on the Second Saturday in April among AK, HI, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/04/2019 - 02:58 pm.

        Not necessarily a bad idea, but the primary would have to start just between AK and HI. American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have no presidential electoral votes.

    • Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/05/2019 - 01:40 pm.

      Not exactly true. Someone does get elected. They are elected to represent the voters at the party’s national convention. They are the ones who actually determine who the party’s nominee will be, not the voters.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/06/2019 - 11:03 am.

      The reality is that primaries are much more important than general elections. This is where the real decisions are made, by limiting the selection of the candidates which are advanced to the general election. The very small number of people who vote in primaries is the reason that our politics is driven by the lunatic fringe on both sides. We need more people, particularly independents, voting in primaries, not less.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/04/2019 - 12:38 pm.

    Only the political party’s should have this voter information. That way we can be assured it will remain private – sure.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 12:41 pm.

    Aren’t there already states that require a declaration of party affiliation when registering to vote? I believe that is the case in Florida, California, and Arizona, and as far as I know it hasn’t led to famine and pestilence. But I may be wrong on that.

    • Submitted by Darryl Carter on 01/04/2019 - 01:44 pm.

      Wrong or not, famine and pestilence are irrelevant to the SECRET ballot, which should be sacrosanct. CA has “Top Two” (parties be damned) primaries for all offices short of President, and we would be well-served by adopting that.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 04:28 pm.

        Are you suggesting that states asking for party affiliation do not have secret ballot elections? That covers most of the states/.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/06/2019 - 10:59 am.

      Just because other states do it that way, doesn’t mean that MN needs to join the bandwagon.

  7. Submitted by Gary DeVaan on 01/04/2019 - 05:01 pm.

    As usual, Carnahan objects to all the ideas and offers none.

  8. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 01/04/2019 - 09:04 pm.

    The presidential primary as “planned” isn’t like any typical primary election in the past. The “purpose” of the primary is to allocate national delegates for the parties for the presidential nominations of the parties. You won’t be “electing” anyone, but the strength of your candidate in the voting will directly set the delegate allocations. At least, that was the “plan”. Having attended caucuses since 1972, a better solution was a good idea. But, this presidential primary as currently planned may not be playing out as some folks had hoped.

  9. Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/05/2019 - 01:31 pm.

    The only reason the parties want voters to declare their party is so that they can get more names to add to their robocall lists. It is bad enough as it is now but if you vote in a primary you can pretty much count on more and more dinnertime calls as the general election approaches.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/07/2019 - 09:20 am.

    Things may have changed since I left, but a decade ago, Colorado required party declaration in order to vote in a primary. It’s the only period of time in my life that I was associated with a political party, and I did not like it.

    It took me, literally, years to get off phone and mail fundraising lists, and while I regard it as voter suppression, I’d prefer not to vote in a primary at all rather than give my name and contact information to a political party. I’ve voted for both Republican and Democratic candidates over the years, and want to be able to continue to do that without harassment from one party or the other.

    I see nothing wrong with simply requiring a registered voter to verbally ask specifically for a Republican or Democratic (or Green or Marijuana-For-All or whatever) party ballot, but there should be no record of what ballot I requested, and no record of the result except the tallies at the end of the voting day. To do otherwise basically does away with the secret ballot, a foundational principle of democratic government.

    Colorado tried electronic voting, which was something of a disaster (there was no paper record, so the potential for hacking-based fraud was enormous) and was discarded. I’m OK with mail-in ballots, which have worked well in Oregon, and I understand their value for people who cannot, for various reasons, actually get to a polling place, but I also don’t mind physically going to a polling place and casting my ballot in person. What I **DO** mind is subsidizing a political party, even one I often agree with, by providing my personal information.

  11. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/10/2019 - 11:54 pm.

    I don’t “identify” as belonging to any party. As long as “other” is a choice, as with sexual identity, there should be no problem. Otherwise, the new Attorney General can take legal action against the Secretary of State for discrimination against voters.

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