Presidential primary legislation hits rough spot

ST. PAUL -- Efforts to launch a presidential primary after Minnesota's overflowing March precinct caucuses frustrated voters hit a series of roadblocks Tuesday in a key Senate committee.

ST. PAUL - Efforts to launch a presidential primary after Minnesota’s overflowing March precinct caucuses frustrated voters hit a series of roadblocks Tuesday in a key Senate committee.

Powerful Senate Finance Chairman Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, said a presidential primary could be short-lived if there is a small turnout. Sen. Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, did not like a provision that makes public which party primary a voter participates in. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, prefers traditional caucuses to be held the same day as the primary, while the bill requires a primary on a different day than caucuses.
The complaints mounted during a Finance Committee hearing that ended with Cohen telling members the bill would come up again later in the week, when little more than two weeks remain in the legislative session.
Sen. Ann Rest, D-New Hope, introduced the legislation after record numbers of Minnesotans turned out at this year’s caucuses, mostly to vote for a candidate in one of the hotly contested presidential races. A similar House bill awaits final committee action.
“This year, there were a lot of people who felt left out,” Rest said.
At her caucus in the western Twin Cities, the senator said, “it was very difficult to maintain order even with the best of volunteer efforts.”
Reports were received that many would-be voters left after encountering traffic jams and overcrowded meeting places.
Rest said that Minnesota Republican and Democratic party chairman agreed to her bill, which would establish the presidential primary starting in 2020 at an estimated cost of $3.8 million. Unlike other elections, the state would pay, not local governments. It would only be a presidential primary, with the existing party primary continuing as is for other offices.
Existing election laws would apply to the vote, including allowing absentee ballots and election-day voter registration.
The state parties would decide what names are on the ballot and if they agree, they can set the election date. If they do not agree, the election would be the first Tuesday in February.
“If you want to participate, you would be asking for a DFL ballot or a Republican ballot and that information would be public,” Rest said, a provision that created controversy.
Bonoff, who lives in a political swing district, said that making that public would reduce turnout in areas such as hers. She said voters should pick what party ballot they want, without that being made public. “I want them to have that freedom.”
Besides making public the party ballot a voter picked, Rest’s bill says the voter must sign off on the statement: “I am in general agreement with the principles of the party for whose candidate I intend to vote.”
Cohen noted that after the last Minnesota presidential primary, in 1992, lawmakers opted to drop it because there was little interest in that election and they wanted to save some money. He said that the same thing could happen if the primary is reinstated.
Newman disagreed with several parts of the legislation, including holding the primary on a different day than caucuses. He leaned toward connecting the primary and caucus.
The caucuses would continue to be held, with activists picking local leaders leaders and delegates to political conventions held later in the year. Caucuses also are a time when party members can discuss issues they feel should be important in upcoming elections.
Cohen backed the primary and caucuses on different days, saying long lines at polling places could prevent people from attending caucuses on the same day.
Newman also said that people involved in the party process should take the time to attend a caucus, not just vote and leave.
Rest admitted not everyone will agree with all of her legislation. “This bill is full of tradeoffs.”

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