Friday will mark the start of early voting for the first presidential primary in Minnesota in nearly 30 years. This state will be in the thick of the 14-state Super Tuesday contest, which actually occurs on March 3.
That’s heady stuff for a state whose early presidential preferences have been confined — with only a few exceptions — to nonbinding “beauty contests” that had little effect on national primaries. But it comes at a price some Minnesotans may consider too high. A 2016 change in state law meant to address complaints about the aging caucus system — mainly that it was unwieldy and noninclusive — has also created what Secretary of State Steve Simon calls “backdoor party registration.”
To vote in the primary, Minnesotans will have to reveal their party preference to election judges. They will have to sign what amounts to a loyalty oath, saying they agree with that party’s values and principles. No signature, no ballot. If that isn’t enough, their names and party choice will be circulated among all major parties. In this election cycle that means the DFL, GOP, the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party will get the names and party preference, though not the candidate selections, of every primary voter in the state.
And here’s the kicker: The secretary of state can share that information only with the parties, but the parties themselves have no legal restrictions on how they handle it.
They can sell it, share it and make it public if they choose. DFL state party Chairman Ken Martin and Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan have said previously they intend to limit their use to party-building, which can include recruiting volunteers, fundraising and voter turnout. But there’s little legal recourse if they go beyond that, this year or in the future.
Simon worries that compelling Minnesotans to reveal their party choice — with no assurance of privacy — may well drive down turnout.
He’s right, and it’s regrettable that the Legislature failed to protect voter privacy when it had the chance. It’s easy to see why parties would opt for this system. They’ll get massive lists of prospects by name and party preference. They’ll know who and where their supporters and opponents are, courtesy of a primary estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $12 million this year.
Voting is the exercise of an American’s most precious privilege and matters more than ever in these times. But Minnesotans need to know that going to the polls in this primary will lead to a loss of privacy. For those in certain professions, that can matter a great deal.
It’s important to remember that only the presidential primary will be conducted in this manner. The Aug. 11 primary, with its full ballots, will not require party preference. Of course, for those who vote in the presidential primary, that information will already be known.
Simon and others, such as the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, are pushing hard to restore a measure of privacy by restricting parties’ use of voter information. Marie Ellis, of the council, said other states have protections such as prohibiting the distribution of names and preferences on social media and preventing commercial use. Those are reasonable and necessary protections that Minnesota legislators should undertake as soon as they reconvene in February.