My quick scan of the latest Minnesota Chamber of Commerce legislative priority list detected one item that bore a closer look. There amid the usual calls for no new taxes, regulatory relief and unspecified spending reform was an item I don’t remember seeing in previous years — election reform.
The chamber supports moving the state primary election from August to June, it said.
“Moving the primary will increase the likelihood of a field of candidates more representative of the electorate, provide greater opportunity for candidates to connect with the voters, and encourage stronger voter turnout,” the business organization’s wish list explained.
My translation: The people who have been paying for Republican campaigns want more sway over who’s running.
Who can blame them? The GOP caucus-to-convention system of candidate selection hasn’t been picking many winners lately.
An earlier primary would be a more potent primary, the thinking likely goes. It would steal some thunder from state GOP conventions, which have been attracting an assortment of Tea Partiers, Ron Paul libertarians and fundamentalists of both the religious and constitutional kind.
Choosing candidates via a primary rather than convention endorsements would give more advantage to the financially well-endowed, both candidates themselves and their corporate sponsors. It might tempt some bigger names to run.
It’s also likely to boost primary turnout beyond the abysmal 9 percent seen last Aug. 14. So argued an Aug. 20, 2012 commentary with a notable double byline — DFL Rep. Steve Simon, now chair of the House Elections Committee, and GOP Rep. Kurt Daudt, this session’s minority leader.
Despite that high-profile backing, interest in changing the primary date isn’t universally or even widely shared among Republican legislators. But it may run just deep enough to put a June primary bill in play this year.
Make that “in play” as trade bait. DFLers aren’t as interested in a June primary. They don’t need a calendar change to give primary voters more clout in statewide nominations. DFL voters showed in 1966, 1978, 1982, 1998 and 2010, to name a few memorable years, that they’re already very much in charge.
But DFLers want an election change most Republicans don’t favor: early voting. And they want a bill that will be signed into law.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has stressed that no election revision will win his signature unless it’s backed by both parties as it passes through the Legislature. But he hasn’t said, at least not publicly, how many Republican votes are needed, or from which chamber, to meet his requirement.
At least one DFL elections committee chair hopes to test his tolerance on the matter. Sen. Katie Sieben aims to find out whether she can find a few Republicans willing to play “Let’s Make a Deal” on an election bill, and if it’s precious few, whether that will be enough.
The deal is spelled out in a bill that has advanced through her committee: Let us open a limited number of polling places 15 days before the general election, and we’ll give you a primary in mid-June.
“I’m willing to consider a June primary if it will help pass a broader elections package,” Sieben said last week.
The Chamber of Commerce isn’t telling Republicans to take that deal, said chamber staffer Amy Walstein. It takes no position on early voting.
Maybe it should reconsider its neutrality. This looks like a deal well worth making. But given how unaccustomed legislators have become to bipartisan dealmaking, a push from the GOP’s business patrons looks necessary to get this done.
Most Republican legislators are unafraid of convention politics. They mastered their local conventions on their way to the Capitol. Many are allied with the special interests who pull convention strings. Many are loath to make primary challenges more likely, which could result if the primary season is shorter.
Many see early voting as hard to manage and monitor, and therefore open to voter fraud.
They may not be sufficiently concerned about their party’s ability to field electable statewide candidates to be willing to change the primary date. They may need some particular persuasion from an organization that does care, to the tune of millions of campaign dollars — some of which flow into legislative campaign coffers.
The best argument for a June primary — higher turnout — also applies to early voting. Chamber of Commerce, take note.
Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. Her blog is Minnesota Matters.
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