The state's top election official and the Minnesota DFL Party want to further limit access to information about voters' political preferences in the presidential primary. But it appeared unlikely Thursday that legislators would do so, with early voting already underway and the primary set for March 3.
The Legislature previously determined that the state's four major political parties can get information about voters' party affiliation in the primary. That means the DFL, Republican and two different marijuana legalization party chairs would receive the data and could share it without legal ramifications.
Minnesotans are worried that information about their political affiliations could become public and affect their careers, Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, wrote to party leaders this month. He suggested changing the law ahead of the primary, including additional restrictions on who gets the data and allowing voters to keep their names off party lists altogether. "Our office is hearing from a lot of people in the business community, the nonprofit community, the clergy, and those in local government, that they are concerned about every major political party getting their party preference information," Simon wrote.
However, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate committee focused on election legislation, said the state shouldn't rush to alter the law this year. Early voting in the primary began Jan. 17.
"With the voting process already underway, let's see how this works in 2020," Kiffmeyer, of Big Lake, said in a statement Thursday. "If we need to make changes, there is plenty of time to do so before 2024."
House Democrats are worried about people's party affiliation becoming public but have not had a chance to look through Simon's proposals, said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
Even if the House did try to expedite the changes, without the cooperation of the GOP-dominated Senate they are not going to meet the March 3 deadline, he said.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan argued Thursday that the state should not alter the rules at this point and emphasized that both Democrats and Republicans signed off on the legislation guiding the presidential primary.
"Changing the rules in the middle of the game is something that the majority of Americans would be against whether we are talking about the Superbowl or an election," Carnahan said in a statement, calling the DFL's concerns "baseless."
Fears about dissemination of voter data are emerging as Minnesota makes the transition to a presidential primary after about 30 years of using the caucus process.
Part of the reason the state changed to a primary in 2016 was to encourage more participation.
Other states that use a similar approach have not had issues with voter data being misused, Carnahan said. She argued Democrats are likely just worried that the two legalize marijuana parties would use the information to siphon off voters from their party.
State DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin held a news conference Thursday and said the changes are in response to a much broader problem.
"My concern is that instead of actually having a huge turnout in our presidential primary, in a few weeks on March 3rd, we could have a very significant drop in turnout because people are concerned about the privacy of their data," Martin said.
National political parties require the collection of the primary voter information to certify that there wasn't partisan interference in an election, he said.
Simon suggested that only a national party representative or designee should get the information.
They would have to formally acknowledge that the data is private under state law and could only use it to verify primary participation. He also proposed altering the law to allow voters to choose not to be included in the data lists that will be shared with the political parties.
Martin said he is still trying to determine whether that opt-out option would comply with Democratic National Committee requirements. If the state does not comply with the national committee rules, he said Minnesota will not be able to send delegates to the national convention.
While many states require voters to register with a party, Minnesota does not. However, people are required to sign a document saying they generally agree with the party's principles before they can vote. What candidate they choose remains private.
"This is, in effect, a backhand way to create party registration," Martin said. "And it's going to have a chilling effect."
Minnesota's Legal Marijuana Now Party Chairman Marty Super said the addition of two new major political parties in the state has politicians "kind of panicked." Since their party is not participating in the presidential primary, he said the proposed changes do not make a big difference to them.
Super said he generally believes voter data should be private, but argued that if major parties are going to get the data, minor ones — like the Green and Libertarian parties — should receive it, too.