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Voter data from Minnesota’s 2020 presidential primary will be given to the state’s major political parties — and only the political parties

precinct caucus
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Under a section of the state government finance and policy bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz last month, the Republican Party of Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — and perhaps even the new marijuana legalization parties — will get a list of every primary voter’s party choice.
Minnesota voters who want to take part in nominating the Democratic and Republican candidates for president next year will be able to do so without engaging in the complicated and often frustrating precinct caucus system.

But they will be giving something to the state’s political parties in return: some of their privacy.

Ballots cast in the state’s 2020 presidential nominating primary, on March 3 of that year, will be secret. But in order to cast a vote, primary voters will have to request a Republican or Democratic ballot. And now, under a section of the state government finance and policy bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz last month, the Republican Party of Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — and perhaps even the new marijuana legalization parties — will get a list of every voter’s party choice.

What they do with such lists is up to the parties as long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes. Creating mailing and phone lists for campaign and fundraising purposes will be allowed. But the public — including the news media and academics — will not have access to the same data because the law creates an exemption from the state Data Practices Act for the lists.

Public elections, private data

A law creating the new primary passed in 2016, after a particularly chaotic-if-well-attended batch of caucuses took place that winter. As part of a deal worked out with state elections officials, legislators and party officials, the primary will be used by both parties to decide delegates for their national nominating conventions.

At the time, little attention was paid to the issue of whether voter lists would be public. Lists of people who vote in other elections is public data, but those lists don’t contain any information about a voter’s political party preference.

When it became clear that the 2016 law would let anyone get the party preference data, however, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon began pushing for a change. He originally preferred that nobody get party preference data, but the parties insisted on getting it as a condition of shifting to primaries. In fact, their national party rules required it, the party leaders said.

So during this year’s legislative session, Simon requested a change that was accepted by the DFL-controlled House: that the DFL get only a list of Democratic voters and the GOP get only a list of GOP voters. Limiting access to the parties was what Simon termed “the next-best place to be.”

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 was to make voter lists exempt from disclosure under the state Data Practices Act.
He didn’t get that either, though. State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan complained when the session began that Simon and the state DFL was trying to block her from getting lists of both GOP and DFL voters. That was true, but the bill language as passed and signed is closer to what Republican Party preferred — it stipulates that all parties will get every party’s list.

“All political parties will get all the data,” Senate State Government and Elections Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said after the bill was agreed to by House and Senate negotiators in late May. “This is a political party issue so we accommodated everyone to the best of our ability. The purpose of a nomination primary is for political parties to narrow their choices. It’s a party process. Do Lutherans vote in the Catholic election for Pope? No.”

Simon said the presidential primary party lists will be similar to the sign-in sheets that have greeted voters at precinct caucuses in the past. “If you go to the caucuses, Ken Martin gets the list of whoever signs up. So does Jennifer Carnahan,” Simon said of the DFL and GOP party chairs.

Senate State Government and Elections Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate State Government and Elections Committee Chair Mary Kiffmeyer: “This is a political party issue so we accommodated everyone to the best of our ability. The purpose of a nomination primary is for political parties to narrow their choices. It’s a party process. Do Lutherans vote in the Catholic election for Pope? No.”
Caucuses, however, are clearly party affairs: organized, hosted and paid for by the parties themselves. But the primary will be taxpayer supported, and the omnibus law even provided extra money to help counties cover the costs of running the election.

Simon has said the state has an interest in having the party delegate distribution done at state primaries rather than party caucuses because it will attract more participants and perhaps avoid the confusion and disruptions that have marked caucuses in the past.

A valuable resource

How valuable are the lists that contain voter party preference? Very.

While parties and political consultants can and do create voter lists based on other pieces of data — contributions, attendance at party events and caucuses, information provided to canvassers — none of those are based on actual voting behavior.

And since the turnout for a primary will far exceed that of caucuses, the number of voters on the presidential primary list will be far larger than it would otherwise. Amid the 2016 election, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political analysis and forecasting website, found that turnout was more than three times higher in states that had held primaries than in states that had held caucuses.

Jennifer Carnahan
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jennifer Carnahan
More voters means better data for the parties. “In any organization or corporation you work in you make decisions based on data,” the GOP’s Carnahan said. “Even though political parties aren’t private corporations, they’re still operating as organizations.”

That data can identify demographic shifts over time and help decided where party resources should be targeted. “Having visibility of all the data can help both political parties in understanding opportunities in areas that have shifted,” Carnahan said.

Martin said the party spends time and money trying to get party preference information on the state’s voters, but estimates that he has no information on between 30 percent and 40 percent of voters. The presidential primary list, like caucus sign-in sheets, “will be used by our local units to recruit people to volunteer and run for office and become active members of our party,” he said. “Caucuses in the past and now primaries, in addition to being a nominating process, they’re also a party building exercise. It gives us a new list of people to approach to be volunteers and become activists.”

Martin said he isn’t yet sure what he would do with the GOP voter list but said it could help identify more of those 30 percent to 40 percent of voters that are political mysteries to the party. “Something like this helps reduce that,” he said.

Will the pot parties get the lists?

There was some uncertainty after the bill language emerged from the Legislature’s conference committee negotiations last month as to whether two newly minted “major parties” will get the same voter data as the DFL and the GOP.

Those parties, which both advocated for legalization of recreational marijuana, fielded candidates for attorney general (the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party) and state auditor (Legal Marijuana Now Party). Both received more than 5 percent of the votes cast, the threshold under state law for gaining major party status.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
Yet the new law states that it applies only to those major political parties that select delegates to send to a national convention. “This chapter only applies to a major political party that selects delegates at the presidential nomination primary to send to a national convention,” it  notes. “A major political party that does not participate in a national convention is not eligible to participate in the presidential nomination primary.”

That suggests that being a major party isn’t enough to qualify for the lists, but there is no clarification in Minnesota law as to what a national convention might look like — or whether these parties could select delegates for such a convention at the state primary.

Even so, via email Simon spokesman Ben Petok said this week that ALL major parties get ALL party data, regardless of whether a major party fields a candidate or not.”

DFL Chair Martin said he disagrees with that interpretation. “We have a different reading of the statute than Secretary Simon’s office and we believe the statute is clear that you have to participate in the presidential primary to receive a copy of another party’s list,” he said.  “It could potentially open them up to a lawsuit.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Nathan Bowe on 06/06/2019 - 11:17 am.

    As nice as it is for the political parties to be able to use this information to target voters (hopefully in a positive, ethical way) this new law effectively disenfranchises everybody who needs to keep their political preference undisclosed for professional reasons. The loss of privacy makes this a bad law.

    • Submitted by Robert Ahles on 06/06/2019 - 12:33 pm.

      I agree totally. Maybe a party representative should stand next to each voter booth and take the names instantly.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/06/2019 - 11:41 am.

    The new law takes me back 15 years to Colorado, and the only time – so far – that I had to declare a party preference in order to vote in a primary.

    I view it as a huge step backward, which serves the interests of political parties, but not the interests of Minnesota citizens. Since tax dollars are fungible, why should my tax dollars or yours go to support the election-related activities of a party and candidates whose attitudes and policy proposals may be antithetical to my own?

    Neither the DFL nor the GOP are benign organizations. The masses of voters who previously never had to deal with this particular brand of junk mail and robocalls will find themselves inundated with pleas for money, time, and volunteer effort, whether they’re interested in contributing any of those things or not, once the primary is over and the parties have that contact information in hand. I found the whole exercise to be offensive and annoying in the extreme while a Colorado resident, and expect it to be equally unsavory here.

    It took me, literally, years to get my name off of voting and fundraising lists, and I’ve made a point of not registering as a Democrat or Republican since then. It’ll depend upon the candidates, of course, and the issues and positions of the various races, but this law puts into play – for me, at least – the temptation to simply skip the primary altogether so as to avoid giving any information to either (or any) political party. I don’t consider that choice lightly. Except for one instance when I was seriously ill, I’ve voted in every election for which I was eligible in every state where I’ve lived as an adult. This law may well bring at least a part of my civic participation to an end, Ms. Kiffmeyer’s flawed analogy notwithstanding.

  3. Submitted by Robert Ahles on 06/06/2019 - 12:43 pm.

    “My idea of it [democracy] is that the plain, humble, common man…goes to the poll at the appropriate time, [and] puts his cross on the ballot paper. This man, or woman, should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy.” Winston Churchill

    I feel the same as Winston Churchill did. It is not anyones business to know how I voted!

  4. Submitted by Thom Roethke on 06/06/2019 - 02:38 pm.

    Why don’t they just do what they do in other primaries in this state and use a single ballot that includes both parties, with instructions to vote for only one?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/07/2019 - 08:57 am.


      My guess is that the Parties demanded THIS process so they could collect this information and use it for fund raising. My position is that it’s not the governments role to be part of a political fund raising apparatus, if they want to use primaries to raise campaign funds, they need to run their own primaries at their own cost with their own election apparatus, otherwise they take what we give them.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 06/06/2019 - 09:22 pm.

    I smell gerrymandering.

  6. Submitted by William Duncan on 06/07/2019 - 07:47 am.

    What if I want to vote but I think both parties serve corporations, banks and billionaires first, and have presided over the exterminating of pollinators and the polluting of Minnesota waters? Neither party standing against foreign corporations plundering Minnesota and making a mess?

    If only 70% of Minnesotan’s vote, but only maybe 50% in the primary, and 55% of people who vote consider themselves independent, then the share of Minnesotan’s who actually prefer either party works out to about 12% each.

    Which I guess is higher than Congress’s approval rating generally. Probably the time is nigh for someone to break away and start a new party out of the remnants of both legacy parties. Looking at the national scene, however, I don’t see anyone with such charisma. But then, no one beholden to either party saw Trump rising. And Trump has surely transformed much of the Republican Party.

    Probably if both parties continue to abuse the majority of the People, someone worse for both parties than Trump will rise.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/07/2019 - 08:48 am.

    Soooo how much do the Parties have to pay for this data? Surely they don’t get it for free since their primaries are administered at considerable cost by our government. Surely we’re not required to pay for their primaries AND surrender our privacy?

    How does a situation like this emerge in the first place? So the Parties say they have to be granted access to this data… well then tell them to run and administer their own primaries. Why do we have to make our state election apparatus available to private political parties so they can select their candidates? Let them do it with their own ballot machines, at their own rented locations, with their own paid staff and they can do their own vote counts and tallies. Our Constitutions don’t say anything about running primary elections, we’re just required to hold general elections for actual office.

    And yes, this is a great way to put people who won’t win elections on the ballot because the primary voters won’t represent the general election voters. Given the conditions of the vote, a significant number of voters just won’t participate in the primaries. This is supposed to be about selecting candidates, not collecting campaign data.

  8. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 06/07/2019 - 09:49 pm.

    My understanding is that the parties at the national level would only “count” our primary for delegate allocations if they could get the lists of who voted.

    I’m no longer a big fan of the precinct caucuses, they do exclude so many folks by their short one evening time frame.

    As an election judge, it will be interesting to see if voters “walk” when they are told they have to tell us a party to get their ballot.

  9. Submitted by Chris Wright on 06/08/2019 - 04:58 pm.

    Fighting Bob La Follette was in favor of the primary system because it prevented interference by Party bosses and party machines. But as time progressed state’s like Minnesota who opposed the primary system began to hold cleaner caucuses, although at the Senate District level they were still corrupt, in my view. The reason why our state changed from a caucus system to a primary system in 2016 was because Bernie Sanders won the Democratic state caucus and a lot of Republicans didn’t like it when Marco Rubio won their primary. Gov. Mark Dayton was angry that Hillary Clinton lost our state and they passed legislation to see that it never happened again.
    Now that party affiliation can be identified in an election, both parties will work their data to target swing voters for a withering amount of advertising and proselytizing. Although they call minor parties ‘spoilers,’ they’ll target their voters to spoil their elections too. What if you were a person who didn’t want your party affiliation to be known for professional reasons? The only way to protect your privacy would be to stay home and not vote. It’s a bleepin’ shame. Shame on our legislature! Shame on the Democrats! And, shame on the Republicans! Their corruption is breathtaking.

  10. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 06/10/2019 - 07:44 am.

    Many comments seem to lack rational thought, just as does this new law. Admittedly, the caucus system was not very efficient. Nevertheless, any party leader who wanted a list of caucus attendees just needed to acquire it by asking. I do wonder at the statement by the writer that changing to a primary system will increase voter participation. What’s the source of that assumption? One must sign up in either case.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2019 - 08:40 am.

      It’s a lot easier, faster, and more convenient to cast a vote at a polling place than it is to caucus, it seems obvious that more people would participate if the process is… faster, easier, and more convenient. But I’m sure someone has done an analysis comparing caucus participation and primary participation numbers. I’d check with one of the political science professors at one of the colleges.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2019 - 08:41 am.

      It’s a lot easier, faster, and more convenient to cast a vote at a polling place than it is to caucus, it seems obvious that more people would participate. But I’m sure someone has done an analysis comparing caucus participation and primary participation numbers. I’d check with one of the political science professors at one of the colleges.

  11. Submitted by Erich Russell on 06/10/2019 - 03:14 pm.

    The Republican/Democrat data sharing destroys the proprietary argument about party data and puts the State in the position of giving an information advantage that is profoundly corrupt to the incumbent Parties as a consequence of a public election. Democrats get a list of Republican registrants and vice-versa. All others are excluded from the same data by Legislative fiat. This scheme violates election fairness and the First Amendment as a consequence.

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