Minnesota will return to an open primary system next year and participate in Super Tuesday, voting alongside nine other states in a chaotic presidential election process that’s likely to weed out a growing list of Democratic hopefuls.
The primary is set for March 3, 2020.
“This really puts Minnesota in the spotlight,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who oversees state elections. “It’s also a great opportunity to showcase our political involvement and energy.”
Party leaders finalized a joint agreement Friday, just one week before the required deadline to alert Simon’s office about potential calendar changes. Proponents signaled an enthusiasm for more national exposure of a state that consistently leads the country in voter turnout.
Super Tuesday refers to the first — and largest — multistate presidential primary, often a make-or-break day for candidates. It includes several of the nation’s largest states, like California and Texas, that have the most national convention delegates up for grabs. The primary also features Alabama, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.
“I know there is some worry about being lost in the fray, but I think that it’s also something that gives some excitement and energy to Republicans and Democrats — and voters in general,” said Becky Alery, spokeswoman for the Minnesota GOP.
GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan also praised the change, but stressed that next year’s primary will have a bigger impact for Democrats, who must choose from a crowded field of nominees to challenge President Donald Trump.
“We have one candidate, and we’re going to stand firmly behind the president,” Carnahan said.
In a short statement, DFL Chairman Ken Martin lauded the opportunity for a Super Tuesday primary because it will allow the party to stay on course with its caucuses and State Convention, while also giving DFLers “early input” on the nomination process.
Super Tuesday is sure to test the momentum of anticipated Democratic front-runners, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For lesser-known candidates like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, even successful showings in early states like Iowa or New Hampshire could quickly be forgotten if they can’t muster a strong performance on Super Tuesday.
But, if history is a guide, the candidate pool could winnow down long before the day arrives. That means Minnesotans who cast absentee ballots may wind up voting for someone who’s already dropped out of the race.
However, voters can claw those ballots back. Up to one week before Election Day, anyone can request that their ballot be destroyed in order to recast their vote for a different candidate. The only caveat: You must trek into a city or county office in person to do it.
Aiming for accessibility
Until recently, Minnesotans who wanted to participate in presidential primaries were forced to jam into classrooms and community centers for evening precinct caucuses. The Legislature shifted to a more straightforward presidential primary system in late 2016, citing complaints of overcrowding, long lines and widespread confusion in the last contest. The law change was meant to help make the process more accessible for all voters.
Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, says there’s little doubt that moving to a primary will improve turnout. In a caucus, participation shy of 10 percent was considered good.
“That’s such a small slice of the electorate,” said Pearson, adding that the caucus system was biased against those who worked in the evenings, those who don’t follow politics closely and the disabled.
“A primary is good … because more Minnesotans will have a say in who Minnesota delegates support,” she said.
Minnesota Democrats and Republicans still plan to hold precinct caucuses late next February to conduct party business, but they will no longer be used for formally nominating presidential candidates. The state will continue holding precinct caucuses for other races.
A byproduct of the 2016 law change meant that, for the first time, voters’ party preferences would become public.
Presidential primaries are run by the state, rather than by political parties. The type of ballot a voter selects — Republican, Democratic or that of one of two legal pot parties — becomes publicly accessible information, though the vote itself is not public and the party selection is not considered to be a party registration.
This practice makes Simon uneasy, and he’s urging the Legislature to safeguard voter privacy by changing it in time for next year’s primary.
“I fear that Minnesota voters will react quite negatively to being told that they can only vote for their preferred party’s presidential candidates if they agree that their choice of ballot will be a public record,” he said. “A friend, a neighbor, an employer would be able to get that information. … This has the real potential to chill participation.”
County auditors would include that information in the statewide voter registration system — which is routinely sold to political campaigns and available to almost anyone who wants it.
“The fix is pretty simple: Don’t make it a public record,” Simon said. “Voters in Minnesota would rather not be forced to choose between privacy and participation.”