No Minnesota democracy lover can boast about the 15.9 percent turnout for the Aug. 10 primary election. But neither ought Minnesotans hang their heads or clamor for a return to the traditional second-Tuesday-in-September date. The vote count certified Monday by the state Canvassing Board -- 606,394 ballots cast by 3.8 million age-eligible voters -- represents the best primary turnout in 10 years.
Whether the optimal date and system have been found for Minnesota's major-party voters to nominate candidates is another, very-much-open question. It's one that deserves consideration not only by lawmakers and political parties but also by citizens and organizations that take seriously their shared responsibility for stewardship of a sound system of state self-governance. (We're thinking of you, League of Women Voters. Happy 90th birthday this week.)
It literally took an act of Congress to get Minnesota to move away from a primary date that was one of the latest in the country. Under the traditional calendar, this year's primary would have been Sept. 14, just seven weeks before the Nov. 2 general election. That would have put Minnesota out of compliance with a new federal requirement that absentee ballots must be made available to overseas military personnel 45 days before an election.
The 2010 Legislature opted for the second Tuesday in August instead. It satisfies the federal rule but left a number of Minnesotans grumbling about the election's intrusion on summer vacation.
Through the years, a June date has been most often mentioned as a desirable alternative. It would set the general election field at the start of Minnesota's summer parade-and-festival season, allowing for more relaxed, in-person campaigning than a sprint to the November finish line affords.
But a June primary is not popular among legislators, for an obvious reason. The Legislature is in session through the third Monday in May. Legislators facing primary challenges would feel politically compelled to campaign just when their St. Paul duties are most demanding.
That resistance to a June primary isn't easy to overcome. The good news from last week's election experience is that, while perhaps not ideal, the August date appears workable. It was made so in large part by a hot contest for the DFL gubernatorial nomination -- surprising some observers for its ability to invigorate voters in a party that some considered dispirited this year.
The date was also made to work by this year's changes in the administration of absentee ballots. Those changes were enacted after the 2008 U.S. Senate recount revealed an unacceptably high rate of absentee ballots invalidated by voter or administrator mistakes. They came just in time for a summertime primary that was bound to generate a surge in absentee voting.
For the first time, absentee ballots were processed in advance at centralized locations, not delivered to polling places on Election Day. That meant that absentee voters committing a common error -- failing to include the signature or address of a witness-- were in most cases notified, and about half were able to cast a corrected ballot.
Last week's results also reveal the value of eliminating the requirement of having a witness to cast an absentee vote. That requirement was lifted for military voters, and the error rate on those ballots fell to nearly nil.
Discarding the witness requirement for all absentee voting ought to be considered by election policymakers as they prepare for the next August primary. They should also weigh the advantages of early voting, an option now afforded voters in 38 states and allowed by mail in Minnesota precincts with fewer than 400 voters.
Early voting would cut out the absentee-ballot middlemen. It would allow voters during a specified period before Election Day to go to a polling location, fill out a ballot and put it into the counting machine themselves. That way, a common primary voting error -- voting in more than one party's column -- would be immediately detected, and could be corrected by the voter. Absentee voting, with its requirement of secrecy envelopes and witness vouching, does not afford early voters an opportunity to interact with error-detecting machines. Especially in the week or two before a summertime primary election, replacing absentee balloting with early voting would appear to offer a clear advantage.