Minnesota’s top election official and a handful of state lawmakers want to give voters a chance to opt out of having their names and party preferences collected in the March 3 presidential primary, a requirement under current state law.
The new proposal, unveiled at the Capitol on Wednesday, also would place new restrictions on how voter data are used.
The plan is the latest response from lawmakers as they address growing privacy concerns about Minnesota’s first presidential primary in three decades. Under the new system, the state must record a voter’s name and which party’s ballot they requested and then send that information to the chairs of all four major parties in the state. There are no restrictions in law about what the DFL, GOP and two pro-marijuana parties can or cannot do with that data.
“They could sell it, they could give it to a vendor, they could give it to a friend group, they could even post it online if they wanted to,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “That’s just too big of a risk for too many people, for small-business owners, for journalists, for public employees of all kinds, for judges, for members of the clergy, or for any Minnesotan who doesn’t care to wear their political affiliation on their sleeve.”
The new proposal would allow voters to fill out a form beforehand to opt out of sharing their data, and it would classify any data that are collected as private, which comes with penalties if its released improperly.
The bill would also limit sharing party preference data to a single national representative from each political party, which can only use the information for the purpose of verifying election results.
The national parties have said they need the data to ensure that members of opposing parties don’t interfere in party primary elections. But another bill introduced last week by a group of House Republicans would go further: It requires state election officials to immediately halt recording voters’ party preferences and purge any data that have already been collected.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she’s concerned that not handing over any data to the national parties could invalidate the state’s role in the nominating process.
“It is possible to accept the rules and protect the privacy of voters in the process,” she said.
Both proposals will be considered as the legislative session convenes next week, and some lawmakers want a solution to be fast-tracked to pass before the March 3 election date.
“I think there are some people who might be reluctant to get out and vote,” said Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs a House elections committee. “I think that would encourage some individuals who are struggling with their decision to participate.”
But any proposal could face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, chair of the chamber’s government and elections committee, has said she’s worried about changing the state’s primary system in the middle of voting.
Early, no-excuse absentee balloting in the primary has been underway since Jan. 17. Tens of thousands of Minnesotans have requested ballots, and thousands have already submitted their choices.
Lawmakers switched to the primary in 2016 after high turnout bogged down the party-run caucus system with long lines and confusing rules. Other than concerns over data privacy, lawmakers said they expect Minnesota’s new primary system to run smoothly.