Minnesota voters will lose something in this year’s presidential primary election that they won’t lose for another four years: privacy.
If they vote on (or before) March 5, voters will have to sign in by party, and that information will be shared with the state’s political parties. In no other election in Minnesota do voters have to tell anyone which party they prefer.
So what makes the presidential primary special? Unlike all other elections, the primary is less a state-and-local event than a party event. The election replaces the party caucuses — those school-lunchroom and fire-hall gatherings that were used to divide up each party’s delegates to national nominating conventions prior to 2020.
Because the parties required sign-ins for those caucuses, both insisted on having a similar record when the process moved to a statewide election. No list, no primary, both parties insisted, with the threat of not seating the state’s delegates at the national conventions. The main rationale is that the lists help defend against mischief-making such as one party’s voters crossing over to meddle in another party’s nomination.
“Part of the reason that we needed this list is to make sure you couldn’t have a whole orchestration of Republican or independent voters coming into our party and trying to manipulate our process,” said state DFL Chair Ken Martin. “We need to be sure the voters who take part in our nominating process are people who generally agree with the principles of the Democratic Party.”
Anna Mathews, the executive director of the state Republican Party, said while the parties still hold precinct caucuses, turnout has fallen since it is no longer used for presidential politics. That makes the primary voter list an important replacement for the caucus lists.
“It is important that we get the list because we’ve always had it in caucus years,” she said. “It helps us to identify voters. It helps us to grow the party. It helps to recruit volunteers and election judges and poll challengers.”
Those voter lists are not classified as public data so are not available for disclosure via the state’s Data Practices Act.
State law not only segregates voters into party primaries and provides lists to the major parties, it also requires voters to sign a certification that they are “in general agreement with the principles of the party for whose candidate I intend to vote.”
While Secretary of State Steve Simon prefers to keep party preferences private, he has said it was a price paid for shifting from caucuses to the more-highly attended primary. And he stresses that which candidate a voter selects remains private. The list sent to the parties will contain only the first name and last name of the voter who chose to vote in that party’s primary.
Still, if a voter doesn’t want the parties to know which party they favor, they shouldn’t take part in the March 5 election.
“That’s a cultural thing for us,” Simon said. “Minnesotans are not used to disclosing to the government their political affiliation. Thirty two states, they’re fine with that. But our political culture has been that voters are reticent about that. And I think for good reason.”
New rules for 2024
Simon praised new rules for the 2024 presidential nominating primary that limited the distribution of voter lists. The rule in the 2020 primary was that a voter’s name was sent not just to the party they chose, it was sent to all major parties. That year, the “major party” included the DFL, the GOP, plus the two marijuana legalization parties — Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots Legal Cannabis.
While DFLers objected to that wide distribution, and attempts were made before the 2020 primary to adjust the law, the rule was kept at the insistence of the then-chair of the Senate State Government Committee Mary Kiffmeyer, herself a former secretary of state.
That multi-party list distribution ended last May with an eight word change to state law contained in the large state government and elections omnibus bill. Now, the list of DFL voters goes only to the DFL, the list of GOP voters goes only to the GOP and the list of the Legal Marijuana Now voters goes only to the LMN. (Grassroots Legal Cannabis lost its major party status after the 2022 election.)
“At least we pared it down,” Simon said. “Now only the party of choice gets that information. It’s first name and last name and that’s it.”
Martin was especially concerned in 2020 that the two marijuana parties might use those voter lists to campaign against DFLers.
“That list is really valuable,” Martin said. “Having other people have access to it, not necessarily the Republicans but the pot parties, really did not sit well with me.” He said the list could have been weaponized against DFL candidates.
While some GOP-adjacent candidates did run under the legalization party banner in ways that weakened DFL candidates, there is no evidence that DFL voter lists were used. And neither of the legalization parties was organized enough or well-enough funded to make much use of the voter data.
“I’m very grateful they changed that,” Martin said. “It doesn’t just benefit the DFL. It benefits all the major parties to keep that information just within their party and not share it with others.”
All lists are not equal
In 2020, most of the action was on the Democratic side that year — a contested Democratic nomination fight versus then-President Donald Trump’s uncontested primary. That resulted in the DFL voter list having far more names. That is, the GOP and the two legalization parties got a list of 744,198 likely Democratic supporters while the DFL received a GOP list with just 140,555 names.
In 2020, the Democratic primary turnout was fueled by a still-up-for-grabs contest between former Vice President Joe Biden, who won the most votes, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had dropped out the week before the primary and endorsed Biden.
That turnout, while small compared to the August primary and the general election, compares favorably to 2016. At that year’s precinct caucuses, the GOP reported turnout of 113,000 and that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won the most votes over Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Some 185,000 voters attended Democratic caucuses and gave Sanders the most support over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
What good are the lists?
Martin said the DFL did look at the GOP list from 2020 to help it shore up data on its own voter lists. That is, if the DFL list had a voter as a likely DFL voter and they turned up on the voter list, the party might change what is termed “the score” for that voter to GOP likely.
But the value was minimal, Martin said.
“We already have those scores based on all sorts of data we collect and buy and the analytics and models that we do,” he said. “In some ways it validated what we already had on these voters.” The larger list of DFL presidential voters was used to strengthen the party identification information.
“Knowing who is getting those ballots is really important because we can now reach out to them and get them involved in our local party, to volunteer for our party and our candidates,” he said.
Mathews said the use for the voter lists is “nothing secretive or special or fancy.” Instead it is to help find the people to run and grow the local party organizations. Because there is no party registration in Minnesota, “this is the best, most pure form of voter ID that we can get on somebody.”
But Mathews said she is not a big believer in the crossover phenomena — that one party’s voters slide over to the other party’s primary to try to advance a weaker candidate. That is the fear that drives some party officials to require voter lists.
“Of course it does happen. But I don’t think a significant block of people are interfering in the other party’s primary,” Mathews said. “I just don’t worry about that.
If the GOP and Democratic presidential primaries remain contested by March 5 — or at least if there is more than one candidate still in the race — party voters will want to vote in their own primaries.
Will she miss getting that list of Democratic voters?
“I do sometimes, but I think Minnesotans care about their privacy and if they knew each party was going to get their preference I think a lot less people would vote,” Mathews said. “On both sides of the aisle.”
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost.
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