This time, Minnesota’s presidential primary is here to stay.
That’s not a small claim, given the lack of staying power previous presidential primaries have had in this state. If the fifth try since 1916 is indeed the charm, there are consequences for this state’s governance that bear consideration as Minnesotans watch the quadrennial circus move on from this and the 13 other Super Tuesday states.
I’ll get to those consequential matters in a moment. First, permit a takeaway or two from the first Minnesota plebiscite of its kind in 28 years:
• Joe Biden wasn’t wrong to credit Amy Klobuchar for his Minnesota victory. Her machine’s pivot to the former vice president when the Minnesota senator left the presidential race less than 24 hours before the polls opened last Tuesday was a remarkable display of political discipline and maturity.
But Biden can also credit Minnesota’s switch to a primary in 2020. Had Minnesota stayed with the caucus system it used in 2016 and through much of the modern political era, chances are good that the candidate who won Minnesota in a rout in 2016 — Bernie Sanders — would have been on top again.
The difference lies not just in the larger number of participants primaries attract, but also in who those participants are. Total turnout, Republican plus Democratic, in last Tuesday’s primary was nearly three times greater than Minnesota caucus turnout was in 2016, when lively contests were in progress in both parties.
Who would vote in a primary, maybe via early voting, but wouldn’t have been likely to show up at a caucus meeting on a chilly Tuesday night? Less-than-zealous partisans would be one such cohort. Older people would be another — and older Democratic voters around the country have been more supportive of Biden than Sanders. Minnesota has done well to switch to a presidential candidate selection process more welcoming to their voices and votes.
• It’s hard to argue that the galling lack of ballot privacy greatly tamped down turnout Tuesday — not when upward of 900,000 ballots were cast. That’s not many fewer than the total votes in the state primary in August 2018.
Still, election policy stewards at the Legislature deserve scolding for creating a taxpayer-funded election in which some people felt they could not participate. Admittedly, that includes journalists, so I’m grinding a personal ax here. But it also includes clergy, judges, merchants, lobbyists, nonpartisan legislative staffers — anybody who’s loath to have his or her name on a partisan list that could easily become public. Among the reticent, I’m told, were a number of Never-Trump Republicans who hope to vote for Biden in November, but didn’t like the reputational downside of doing so last week.
Defenders of giving primary voters’ names to party organizations claim that’s nothing new. It merely replicates what caucuses always did. Further, they argue, some kind of mechanism is in order to prevent the partisan crossover mischief that was among the reasons Minnesota scuttled its presidential primary after the 1956 election.
But Minnesotans long ago rejected party registration. They decided they would tolerate some amount of partisan tomfoolery in state primaries in order to allow voters to freely shift from one party preference to another. That’s part of what has kept Minnesota politics dynamic and state government responsive to the people. As long as state taxpayers are paying for a presidential primary, I’d say, this state’s values ought to drive its administration.
• The flip side of strong primary turnout last week was the abysmal showing at precinct caucuses — or what remains of them — the week before. A DFL spokesman said last week that while “we’re still getting some numbers in,” roughly 20,000 hardy loyalists turned out on Feb. 25 to set in motion this year’s endorsement cycle for legislative and congressional races.
If that number holds, it may be an all-time low. And that should set off alarm bells among those who care about the quality of state government in Minnesota.
Despite the erosion in its clout for statewide offices, party endorsement still plays a big role in selecting candidates, particularly for the Legislature. Relatively few legislators have faced serious primary challenges in recent years. Party endorsements for legislative seats generally set the ballot for the fall. In lopsidedly partisan districts, they decide the election.
Allowing party endorsement to become (still more) a tool of a small number of party zealots isn’t something Minnesotans should welcome. It would likely lead to even greater partisan polarization at the Legislature, as candidates in both parties are selected by the few party enthusiasts who bother to participate.
Minnesotans have seen that happen before. It’s ironic that caucuses were jettisoned in favor of a primary this year because high presidential-year turnout in 2008 and 2016 had made caucuses chaotic. Before those surge years, the biggest beef about caucuses in Minnesota was poor attendance.
That was particularly true in the 1990s. Low-turnout caucuses played a role in the 1994 endorsement of two gubernatorial candidates, Republican Allen Quist and DFLer John Marty, who were dispatched in turn by unendorsed Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. Those years saw increasing polarization and dysfunction at the Legislature — a trend that, sadly, was never reversed.
Soon thereafter, a bipartisan commission convened by then-Secretary of State Joan Growe called for a series of reforms intended to both boost caucus participation and strengthen the hands of primary voters. Among the ideas was giving any candidate who receives 20% of the vote at an endorsing convention a guaranteed place on the primary election ballot, while increasing the filing-petition signature requirement for any candidate who bypasses party conventions.
Despite considerable support, the Growe Commission’s ideas were shelved at the Legislature. It was never entirely clear why, but I suspect a dusting for fingerprints on the relevant bill jackets would have found those of the late House Speaker Irv Anderson and his anti-abortion allies. Single-issue crusaders tend to like their democracy skinny, not fat.
Minnesotans who are wondering what to do about a party endorsement system that has just been weakened again might want to take a look at the Growe Commission’s recommendations. They may be 25 years old. But the need to keep Minnesota’s democracy in the hands of the many, not the few, is greater than ever.
Lori Sturdevant, a retired Star Tribune editorial writer, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.