Decades of calls for an earlier primary election date in Minnesota are finally getting support at the Capitol. With bipartisan backing, early enactment appears likely of a bill to move the primary to the second Tuesday in August -- Aug. 10 this year -- from its traditional "first Tuesday after the second Monday" in September.
A shove from Congress is the biggest reason for improved prospects for an earlier primary. Legislation signed into law by President Obama in October lengthened from 30 to 45 days the legally required absentee balloting period for military and overseas voters. With the second-latest primary election in the nation, Minnesota's current-law political calendar this year permits a scant 31 days for absentee voting. It's clearly out of compliance with federal law.
What's more, Minnesota legislators were reminded by the 2008 Senate election's recount that a sizable share of absentee ballots are disqualified and go uncounted, simply because they arrive too late. More than 500 ballots from overseas voters suffered that fate in 2008, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.
One other thing has changed since a multifaceted election reform bill containing an August primary was felled by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto last May. A handful of legislators from both parties who specialize in election law put themselves through a detailed negotiating process during the intervening months, at the instigation of Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
With Jacobs as their convenor and former Anoka County elections director Rachel Smith, now director of the Institute's Election Administration Project, rounding up resources and answering questions, the legislators' talks proved unusually productive. The legislators most regularly involved included Senate DFLers Ann Rest and Katie Sieben; Senate Republican Chris Gerlach; House DFLers Ryan Winkler and Steve Simon; and House Republican Tom Emmer.
Away from the Capitol's partisan pressures, the legislators settled into sorting various election reform proposals, identifying ones both DFLers and Republicans could accept, ones that both might accept after deliberation and modest adjustment, and ones favored by one party and anathema to the other.
As they worked, they forged an agreement to advance only those measures that could win mutual favor. That's the bar that Pawlenty set last year for him to sign any bill related to elections. Both parties' legislators backed off positions they had taken in 2009. DFLers said they would set aside proposals the Republicans disliked; Republicans said they would not withhold their votes from otherwise agreeable bills to protest the omission of provisions they favor -- such as a required showing of a photo ID card to be able to vote.
"These people put aside the nasty division that has polarized us," Jacobs said, praising the legislators' willingness to act on the merits rather than the politics of election reform. "They responded to the bell when all of us said, stop the fighting. Let's get something done."
Several of the negotiating legislators preferred a June primary date, as does this newspaper. But holding out for June would not get the job done, the legislators determined. Too many of their fellow legislators fear a primary date too close to the usual end of the legislative session, on the third Monday in May. In this exercise, the perfect was not allowed to become the enemy of the good.
The turnaround in the prospects for an earlier primary date, and the positive working relationship that developed among the legislators involved, has Capitol observers wondering whether their process of mediated negotiation has wider application. Balancing the state budget is another highly partisan issue, but within it lie points of possible bipartisan accord. Those points are too often obscured by the Capitol's political theater, which can be expected to become particularly intense in this election-year session. This might be the year to try early negotiations about the state budget, mediated by a trusted neutral broker.