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

Secretary of State Steve Simon’s solution to address concerns about revealing party preferences is to make the 2020 primary voter lists exempt from Minnesota’s Data Practices Act — for everyone but the parties. 

Secretary of State Steve Simon
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.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.