Many local government leaders across Minnesota are planning not to vote in March’s presidential primary, saying that indicating a party preference could jeopardize their nonpartisan status and open them to political attacks.
The state’s new presidential primary system requires that voters select a ballot assigned to a major party and sign a loyalty oath to that party. That information will go to the party chairs, with few if any restrictions on what they can do with it.
“It’s critical that I not get pigeonholed into one party or the other in order for me to do my job,” said Edina City Manager Scott Neal, who won’t be voting in the primary. “I need to be able to work with people of all political stripes at the local level.”
Minnesota’s first presidential primary in nearly 30 years is already generating concern among voters who want their party loyalties kept private.
But local elected and appointed officials face a quandary that is more than just personal.
City and county leaders are expected to refrain from political activities that could “undermine public confidence in professional administrators,” according to the code of ethics outlined by the International City and County Management Association.
For many local leaders, the new primary system is shaking their confidence.
Jay Stroebel, Brooklyn Park’s city manager, will abstain from voting in the primary, too. “I’d love to participate, but the way it’s set up, that confidentiality is lost,” he said.
It is not just local officials who are worried. Koochiching County Commissioner Wayne Skoe said he’s been trying to educate constituents on the primary process as he makes the rounds at coffee shops and restaurants, explaining that the major parties will get information on who voted in which party’s primary.
“Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to said, ‘If that’s how it is, I’m not going to vote,’ ” Skoe said. “This just isn’t a good path to go down.”
Secretary of State Steve Simon, who oversees elections in the state, said that local officials will have to figure out how much of a risk they’re willing to tolerate by voting in the presidential primary.
“Someone’s political identity or preferred affiliation for this contest [won’t] automatically be out in the public realm,” Simon said. “But is there, under current law, a risk of that? Sure.”
Simon, a DFLer, said he wants to put more limits on what the parties can do with the ballot information. He persuaded legislators last year to limit those who would get the voting data to the chairs of the four major parties: Democrats, Republicans, the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party. Voters this year will be able to choose between only the GOP and DFL ballots, since those are the only two parties with primary candidates.
“All we’re asking for is some reasonable guardrails, some restrictions, where none exist right now,” Simon said.
Under the new system, presidential primary voters must pledge they are “in general agreement” with party principles to receive a ballot. In states where voters must register with a party, they can mark their preference as independent or unaffiliated; that won’t be the case with the Minnesota primary.
Matthew Hilgart, director of government relations for the Association of Minnesota Counties, said the organization has been hearing concerns from county commissioners who are worried about where information about voter affiliation — including their own — might go.
“This is a new issue and concern,” Hilgart said. “What parties will do with the data is being hotly discussed among our members.”
The League of Minnesota Cities hasn’t taken an official position on the issue, said research manager Amber Eisenschenk. Municipal positions in Minnesota are generally nonpartisan, which isn’t the case in all states.
“City staff are expected to work on behalf of their entity and not on behalf of their party,” she said. “While people may be able to tell where a council falls on certain issues on the political ideological spectrum, there’s no letter after [a council member’s] name on the ballot.”
Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl said he hadn’t yet decided whether he’ll vote in the primary, but he worries that his re-election campaign this year will be affected if his party affiliation is publicized. He said he hopes to keep polarized political rhetoric away from City Hall.
“The number one thing I can do on the City Council is keep Democratic and Republican things out of here,” he said.