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Whose 2020 Minnesota presidential primary is it, anyway?

Who’s primary is it, anyway? The state, who’s picking up the tab? Or the parties, who were allowed to make most of the major decisions — and will be the only entities to get the valuable lists of voters who participate?

On March 3, 2020, Minnesota will hold its first presidential nominating primary in nearly three decades — and perhaps its first meaningful primary ever. But many aspects of the election will feel a lot different for those used to voting in primaries and general elections in Minnesota. 

As with the state’s August primary, voters must ask for a party ballot, and they will only be able to vote for candidates from that party. Unlike the August primary, though, the voter’s choice of party will be recorded by election officials — and then shared with the DFL, the GOP and two pro-marijuana legalization parties that have been designated as “major parties” under state law. 

Another difference: Candidates listed on the DFL and GOP party ballots will not include all those who filed for office. Instead, candidate names will be provided by the chairs of the two parties. In the case of the GOP, the only name appearing on Republican Party ballots will be Donald Trump. The DFL hasn’t submitted its list yet.

Those same chairs will also get to decide whether there will be a space for write-in candidates (both parties say there will be) and whether election officials can tally those votes by name (a decision that won’t be made until a week before the primary).


And unlike any other election in Minnesota, the costs of the presidential primary will be borne by the state rather than local governments, a tally currently estimated to be $11.9 million.

All of which raises a question that might be asked more frequently as March approaches: Who’s primary is it, anyway? The state, which is picking up the tab? Or the parties, who were allowed to make most of the major decisions — and will be the only entities to get the valuable lists of voters who participate? 

Simon says: It’s good for the state

Secretary of State Steve Simon has heard these questions a lot. Despite the unfamiliar rules and benefits to the parties, he thinks the state gets something out of having a more familiar process, one that expands voter access and will almost certainly bring out more voters than precinct caucuses do.

Secretary of State Steve Simon
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Secretary of State Steve Simon
In 2016, the caucuses were victims of their own success, Simon said. The GOP caucuses that year drew 114,000 people, while the DFL gatherings attracted 207,000 voters. “This change was brought about because the Legislature perceived that the turnout was so great in both parties that it literally overwhelmed the ability of volunteers to handle it,” he said. “There are more than 4,000 precincts in the state, and the DFL alone needed 15,000 volunteers to staff them.”

“We just aren’t equipped to handle that,” said state DFL Chair Ken Martin.

Both parties will hold precinct caucuses for platform discussions on Feb. 25, 2020, and to select the delegates who will move on to Senate district and county conventions. But under a law passed in 2016, the new March 3 primary will be used to decide how many delegates each candidate gets at the national political conventions. Minnesota is one of 15 states have presidential primaries that day.

“The caucus system has its advantages and its disadvantages,” Simon said last week. The biggest disadvantage is that it doesn’t provide a way for voters who are unable or uncomfortable with attending a public caucus to take part. “If you are working that night, or sick that night, or your kid’s sick that night, or you’re in the military, or you’re studying abroad, or you got a flat tire, whatever it is,” you can’t participate, he said. 


Yet the new process will remain a private one, organized by political organizations. And the winners of the presidential primary will not move directly to the November ballot, as happens with candidates on the August primary ballot. Instead, the contest is meant to distribute delegates to the party conventions. That’s why the parties demanded control over which voters take part, which candidates will be on the ballot — and who gets the data on voters.

Why, then, are Minnesota taxpayers footing the bill, at a cost that is more than three times an estimate floated during the 2016 legislative session, when the law instituting the new presidential primary was passed?

“Because this is such a consequential job, no one has ever seriously proposed something for any other office than president of the United States,” Simon said. “It is what binds us to other states; it’s the most powerful person in the world. To give people access to choosing their party’s nominee is something the state has an interest in.”

2019 law change

The 2016 law that created the new presidential primary made party choice of individual voters a public record. Then, during the 2019 legislative session, Simon pushed to change that. His preference was that no one get the information, especially in a state that does not require voters to declare party affiliation when registering to vote. 

But the Legislature eventually relented to the parties’ demand that they be provided the names of primary voters in order to police the process. In short, they want to be able to look through the names of voters to identify obvious mischief-making by known activists of the opposing party.

But when the law was passed as part of an omnibus bill, the language (at least as Simon’s attorneys interpret it) gave all major parties the lists of everyone who voted in the primary. That means that not only will the lists go to the DFL and the GOP; they will go to the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party, both of which qualified for major party status by winning more than 5 percent in races for statewide office in 2018.

Simon said he has pulled together some money from his office budget for a public awareness campaign to make sure voters know their party choice will be known to all four parties.  


“While that rule might have a chilling effect on turnout, the worst outcome from my standpoint might be someone voting not knowing that rule and then finding out a day, a week, a month later that the rule existed and being really worried about that disclosure,” Simon said.

Just one name?

State Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan made news — and attracted criticism — when she sent her list of candidates to Simon with only one name on it: Donald Trump. 

While she has until the end of the year to make that list official, doing so is not reversible or amendable under state law. Carnahan said she will ask that a line be placed on the ballot for voters to write in an alternative, but she also said the party hasn’t yet decided whether to direct Simon and county elections officials to search for and tally specific names. Like with other elections, elections officials only look for names of those they are directed to, either by a filing by a write-in candidate or by party direction.

Jennifer Carnahan
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jennifer Carnahan
Carnahan said only one candidate had notified the state party of their intention to run in the primary, President Trump, though Republican presidential challengers Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld objected to the move on social media. Sanford has since said he won’t run. 

“When that story in the Star Tribune came out, some of these other candidates were tagging me in Twitter, calling me a fascist, yet none of your campaigns has ever reached out to our office or me as the chair with a request for ballot access,” Carnahan said. “It is not my job to run someone else’s presidential campaign. It is incumbent on candidates to, quite honestly, know the rules in every state.”

Carnahan said the decision was made by her executive committee. Unlike some states that have canceled GOP primaries, the Republican Party of Minnesota wanted to take part in the process, she said. 

Yet Carnahan made her decision well before the deadline for doing so: 63 days before the March 3 primary. She said she did it shortly after the committee met to discuss the primary. Whatever her decision, she said Trump will get all 39 of the state’s delegates to Charlotte if he wins 50 percent of the vote plus one.

Other states use different methods, including simply filing to be on the ballot. It was that system that was used in Minnesota’s only other recent primary, which was not used by the parties to distribute party delegates. 

Still other state governments let secretaries of state select candidates for the ballot based on their observation of active candidates, a role Simon said he would not have wanted to play in Minnesota. “I think a filing method makes more sense because that’s what we’re used to. It democratizes the process. But that’s just me,” Simon said. 

Two DFL state lawmakers have said they will introduce legislation next session to take authority away from the parties. While Reps. Jamie Long and Ray Dehn, both of Minneapolis, say they think it could be adopted in time for the 2020 primary, Simon said deadlines for ballot design will have come and gone by the Feb. 11 opening of the session.

DFL Party chief Martin said it wasn’t a contentious issue in 2016, and that the parties usually demand some legal authority to veto names of candidates that they don’t consider to be legitimate contenders or even active members of the party.

The biggest demand in 2016, Simon said, was what the parties called “the recordation requirement,” which required separate ballots and for each party to get a list of voters who chose their ballots. Otherwise they would not be allowed by national party rules to take part.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, was the lead member of the Senate on the issue and said she supported the primary in response to the chaos of the 2016 caucuses. The parties gave up the complete control they have over caucuses, but they did insist on deciding many of the details in return for abiding by the results, she said.

The state wanted to have a regularized process for making such an important decision as who would be the president. In return, the parties agreed that it would bind their delegates to the national convention.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
Rest said letting party chairs decide which candidates would appear on the ballot was not a big issue and she did not anticipate that Carnahan would only list Trump. When the bill was passed, Trump was a candidate, not the president, she said. Yet there was always the concern that the party of an incumbent president might have less interest in the primary than the party trying to regain the office.

She also said she opposed the language that emerged this past session that let the marijuana parties get the lists of voters even when they aren’t taking part in the presidential primary. She said the law benefits the GOP because the marijuana parties can use the DFL list to run challenges that might take votes away from Democratic legislative candidates.

And having no choice on the Republican side might increase the temptation for GOP-leaning voters to vote instead on the Democratic ballot, even if they have no intention of voting that way in November.

Martin said he remains concerned about providing valuable lists to the marijuana parties. In close races, a party grabbing just a few percentage points can make the difference between winning and losing. “I’m just not sure there is anything we can do about it at this point,” he said. 

If the DFL wins both the House and Senate in 2020 he said he will ask for changes to how voter lists are distributed.

Martin said he has received letters from most major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination and expects them all to be on the ballot unless they drop out of the race by the end of the year. Unlike the GOP’s winner-take-all system, Democrats have proportional distribution. Any candidate who gets at least 15 percent of the vote will get some of the state’s 92 delegates, he said.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 11/20/2019 - 12:02 pm.

    One correction based on my training as an election judge – in the August primary you don’t get a ballot by party. You get a ballot that has all the primary races on it. For the partisan races, you can not cross over.

    Unless, of course, they changed this in the laws regarding the presidential primary and no one is yet aware of that!

  2. Submitted by Darryl Carter on 11/20/2019 - 01:16 pm.

    Thank you for this gem of good journalism. ANY primary funded with public $ should include ONE,ballot, available to ALL voters, to be cast in SECRET. Participant information allegedly made available only to private corporations called “parties”, will of course be hacked/accessed/leaked/divulged. Presidential primaries should be: one/month; time-zone based; progress from smallest population to largest; sequential elimination; universal participation and NON-PARTISAN, beginning on the 2nd Saturday in April among AK, HI, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

  3. Submitted by Michael Jones on 11/20/2019 - 01:27 pm.

    Funny that I must declare my party affiliation to vote in a primary but not to vote in a general election. My response will be to cross over and let the party I don’t prefer waste its resources courting my actual vote. Has anyone thought this through?

    In the past, both parties placed their options on a single ballot and I voted on only one party’s slate. I believe that most Minnesotans are smart enough to figure that out and can do so without declaring any affiliation.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/21/2019 - 01:42 pm.

      Yes, those crossovers were a large part of Bernie Sanders’s primary voters. Half his voters in West Virginia were voting for Trump no matter who won on the Democratic side.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 09:46 am.

        Please Pat, must you use every pretext you find to attack Sanders supporters?

        Two fact: 1) Yes, Democrats lost independent voters who would have voted for Sanders instead of Trump had he been on the ballot instead of HRC. I don’t know why we have to keep reminding Clinton Democrats that HRC lost the election. 2) 90%-98% of Sanders primary voters went on to vote for HRC in the general election. HRC didn’t lose the election because Sanders “cross-overs” she lost the election because of white women cross-overs and Obama voters who stayed home.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/26/2019 - 10:24 pm.

          The point is that those primary voters had no intention of voting for Sanders in the general. It was the lack of party ID that inflated his numbers. Just as the the undemocratic voter suppressing caucuses inflated his numbers.

  4. Submitted by Curt Johnson on 11/20/2019 - 02:46 pm.

    Even if the pool of Democrat candidates shrinks by half or more, there is still the strong likelihood that no one will win a majority. Isn’t it a shame, with Ranked Choice Voting now surging and spreading, that an election like this will be done in the old way? Minnesota ought to have a primary winner. Chances are, we won’t.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/20/2019 - 09:20 pm.

      Uh, one thing….

      It’s not a winner take all deal for the Democrats. Delegates are awarded on a proportional basis.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Quinn on 11/20/2019 - 03:41 pm.

    So which party ballot I choose becomes public record? Looks like I’ll be opting out of this one,

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/20/2019 - 07:22 pm.

    The Legislature decided to go with a primary system which means that the State must pay for it.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/20/2019 - 09:23 pm.

    I don’t think the state should be funding any primary elections.

    We are the only nation that even has promaries. Parties are private entities. They can choose whoever they want to put on the general election ballot. If you don’t like the candidate a party nominates for an office, either vote for someone else, or get involved in that party before the next election.

  8. Submitted by Stephen Bubul on 11/21/2019 - 08:06 am.

    I have no quarrel with moving from caucus to primary–the last caucuses were indeed chaotic, and discriminate against those without the time to attend. But primaries are public elections, administered and paid for by the State. As such, the State should make the decisions about how they are run. It makes no sense to give the parties control over details like which candidates are eligible to appear on the ballot. And while I’m an avid Democrat, I’m not keen on the idea of having to declare that for the world as a condition of exercising my right to vote. (On some days, I feel more Green or Disaffected, or just plain Ornery.) The current law was hastily drawn, and I hope that it will be revised to make it more democratic with a small “d.”

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/21/2019 - 09:42 am.

    The only time I’ve ever registered as a party member was in the ’04 cycle, when I lived in Colorado and was required to do so in order to vote in the primary, much as this new setup in Minnesota requires. It took me YEARS to get my name off of donor and volunteer lists, and to stop the junk phone calls, emails and “regular” mailings cluttering up my mailbox. As a result of that thoroughly negative experience, I vowed never to register as a party member again.

    That only party ballots will be available, and because voter data will be shared at all – much less to the state’s political parties – I will not participate in this year’s primary elections. Up until that previous experience with political parties, I’d only missed one election of any kind in decades, and I haven’t missed any since then, but I’ve never liked party caucuses, which tend to draw ideologues, and the new party-based setup in Minnesota ensures that I won’t be taking part in any primary elections here, either – at least not in this election cycle.

    This law is a travesty – an egregious violation of voters’ privacy for the sole benefit of private organizations (the major parties) whose primary interest is the data is financial, and secondarily electoral. There’s no benefit to the voter. The law should be repealed – even better if it can be successfully challenged in court and prohibited as a result. No political party has a right to my personal information, and voting – a constitutional right – should not be allowed to be the mechanism by which that personal information is given away, at taxpayer expense, to a private entity.

    • Submitted by Greg Smith on 11/21/2019 - 02:38 pm.

      Mr. Schoch,
      I don’t believe you are required to register for a party, just declare which party ballot you want.

      That said, though we are diametrically opposed in issues, i heartily agree with you here. That my voting info would be recorded is not acceptable.

  10. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/21/2019 - 09:45 am.

    If the state funds primary elections, the state should allow anyone who registers to be on the ballot, under whichever label they choose.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 10:04 am.

    I actually voted in those primaries 30 years ago, and we had declare Party affiliation at the time. I can’t remember if we got a different ballot or not, but that information was obviously passed on the Parties because shortly after we started getting DFL mailings and phone calls.

    Here’s what I think about this: If the State is going to run the primary and taxpayers pay for that primary, then the State should decide who’s on the ballots, and who has access to voter information, not the Parties. If the State pays for and “collects” this data, that data should fall under the State data practices act. If the Parties can’t run their own primaries and caucuses they forfeit their rights to decide how primaries are run and what happens to voter information.

    The fact that un-elected Party leadership decides who gets on the ballot is simply ridiculous. There should be an objective criteria developed that candidates can follow to get on the ballot. The criteria can developed by the legislature and enacted by the Secretary of State.

    Primaries should be ranked choice.

    I don’t see how the Party declaration prevents cross-over voting because crossing-over isn’t illegal and prohibitions cannot be enforced. What are you going to when someone changes their Party, refuse to give them a ballot?

    At the very least there should be a provision in primary elections that gives voters a choice whether or not their information is shared with the Parties. You should be able to opt out.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/26/2019 - 01:49 pm.

    Rules that exclude legitimate candidate from ballot access are unconstitutional.

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