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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”