ST. PAUL - After more than 321,000 Minnesotans stuffed themselves into schools, churches, fire halls, snowmobile groups and Lions Clubs across the state to take part in presidential picking last month, Capitol and party leaders, as well as many voters, decided it is time for a change.
Within days of the March 1 caucuses, leaders and their constituents began clamoring for the state to move from a presidential caucus system to a presidential primary.
The volume was too great, the lines were too long and the caucus sites too chaotic for the system to continue, supporters said.
Despite bogging down on other issues, the Legislature and the governor appear ready to make the change. In both the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor controlled Senate, measures to change the 2020 presidential selection process into a primary are zipping along.
“There shouldn’t be a disagreement about that,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said last month as the House and Senate were busy disagreeing on other topics. Although in past years the push toward a primary has faltered, this year it appears on track to go all the way.
If the measure becomes law, Minnesota would join a majority of states in holding primaries - not caucuses - every four years to allow partisans to vote on party nominees. According to records kept by the National Council on State Legislatures, only 15 states have some version of presidential caucuses, as Minnesota has had for the past two decades.
For Minnesotans used to the caucus system, a move to a primary would change more than just the voting.
Hours become flexible
For decades, Minnesotans who wanted to voice their selections in a party’s presidential nomination would have to show up at their caucus location on a certain Tuesday evening.
Partisans who wanted to vote absentee could not do so. If their night hours made it hard to get away, they could not vote in the caucus. Only those who had available time between 6:30 and 8 p.m. had a voice in the process.
In a primary, all of that would change.
The presidential primary in Minnesota would be treated much like other elections. Voters could get absentee ballots, could vote any time the polls were open during primary day and could vote by mail in precincts where that is an option.
Party choices become public
Under current law, voters who want to cast a vote in their party’s presidential preference contest have to show up at their chosen party’s caucus site.
Showing up in person means voters’ neighbors know which party that person prefers. The parties also collect names and contact information for those who participate to build up their volunteer and activist bases.
In the presidential primary, parties would still be able to collect that information - and so would anyone else with access to voter files.
“The county auditor shall make available for inspection a public information list which must contain the name, address, year of birth and voting history of each registered voter in the county. The list must include the party choice of any voter who voted in the most recent presidential nomination primary,” the Senate’s presidential primary bill says.
Voters also would have to attest they are in general agreement with the principles of the party of the candidate for whom they are voting.
While anything that goes on inside the primary voting booth would be private - no one but the voter would know the candidate he or she supported - whether the voter picked up a Democratic Party ballot or a Republican Party ballot would be public.
More Minnesotans would likely participate in a primary than caucuses - the secretary of state assumes a turnout of 640,000 voters, twice the number who took part in caucuses. That could change the nature of the results.
At caucuses, the most fervent believers and more experienced partisans tend to show up.
A primary could bring in supporters who are less passionate or new to partisan politics.
Only registered voters could vote
In caucuses, anyone who will be eligible to vote in the November election can vote. That means 17-year-olds who will be 18 by Election Day can cast presidential caucus votes as could anyone who has not yet registered.
But in a primary, only registered voters could cast ballots, the way the primary measures are written.
Unlike some states, Minnesota does not have registration by party so lack of party designation - or switching party designation - would not be an issue in a presidential primary.
Caucuses would continue
Although the biggest attraction to presidential caucuses is casting ballots for presidential choices, parties also do other business at caucuses. Parties would still hold caucuses should a primary bill become law. The House and Senate measures say those caucuses should be held the Tuesday before the presidential primary, unless the chairs of the parties agree to a different date.
Those caucuses would be required only from the two largest major political parties, which received the “greatest and the second greatest number of votes at the most recent gubernatorial election.”
State would pick up cost
Caucus are run by parties and staffed by volunteers. In a primary, the state would take over the cost and local election officials would staff the polling places.
The cost of printing the ballots, hiring election judges for 3,000 polling places and programming voting machines and computers would cost about $3.8 million. While parties pay for caucuses, the state and the legislative measures assume Minnesota taxpayers would bear the cost of a primary.
But the state would pay for a presidential primary only for major parties. Although third parties have won major party status, right now, the only major parties are the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and the Republican Party of Minnesota. The Green, Libertarian and Independence parties and others would be left out.
In exchange, supporters say, the state would require the primary ballots to include a choice for uncommitted and require parties to base delegate numbers on the results of the primary votes. And, supporters say, Minnesotans would have more access to the selection process and gain more faith in the results.
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.