Phillips: New presidential primary in Minnesota has some flaws

Minnesota voters will have a new primary election this year so state residents can choose their preference for presidential candidates. The new primary election replaces the caucus poll system for choosing delegates of presidential candidates to the party conventions later this year.

However, this new primary election also has some new twists not present in our usual primary elections as voters will have to declare their party before getting a ballot.

The new process was decided in a recent legislative session after lawmakers received complaints from people who attended caucuses in 2016 where they found crowded sites with long lines to get in buildings. Also, the caucuses drew many new people due to the interest in the 2016 presidential election and these new attendees weren’t used to the quirks in the presidential preference poll process at caucuses.

Now, Minnesota is part of the 14-state Super Tuesday election on March 3. However, Minnesotans can already vote, the first in the nation to do so, through early voting.

In this presidential-only primary election, voters will have to choose a Democratic ballot or Republican ballot in order to vote. Voters will also have to swear an oath declaring themselves in “general agreement with the principles of the party” whose ballot they choose.

There won’t be party officials enforcing the oath, but it will give some voters pause, particularly those who didn’t take part in party caucuses in the past. That could be more of an issue in small towns where many voters know the election judges, which will likely make some people even more uncomfortable declaring their party preference.

Even more concerning is that the legislation gives party officials the rosters of voters in the primary election. There are few restrictions on what can be done with that information

People fear that they could be bombarded with marketing or even that the rosters could be made public, identifying who voted in a party’s particular primary.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported the possibility of being identified is keeping many local government leaders away from the polls this spring. They fear that indicating a party preference could jeopardize their nonpartisan status and open them to political attacks.

The code of ethics outlined by the International City and County Management Association states that city and county leaders are expected to refrain from political activities that could “undermine public confidence in professional administrators.” Several officials told the Star Tribune the new primary system is shaking their confidence.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is expected to introduce legislation next month that would limit what parties can do with the information, which includes not just the party people chose, but also their date of birth and address. However, voters likely won’t know the outcome of Simon’s proposal until after the primary.

It’s understandable why party leaders want some control over presidential primaries. In some states with wide open primary voting, people have switched over to cast votes for the weakest candidate in the opposing party if there was no real contest in the party they would normally support.

In Minnesota, though, it seems the party leaders have too much control. For one thing, the Republican Party put just one candidate on the ballot, the incumbent president, even though others within the party are running for office. It’s true the challengers are extreme long shots, but why not give Republicans a true choice?

After all, the public is paying for these elections at an estimated cost of $11.9 million. Municipalities and counties will be reimbursed with state funds, but taxpayers are still paying for the elections.

Since the election for the party preferences are being paid by public funds, the Legislature should take into account public concerns about the process, including privacy issues that are drawing the most complaints.

Although the presidential primary is the newest and first political step in Minnesota, there are several other key events for voters. The caucuses will still be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25. A presidential preference poll won’t be on the agenda anymore, but attendees can still help shape the party platform, elect local delegates and visit with like-minded neighbors.

Also, the state will have its regular primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 11, when voters will narrow the field for state offices if more than two candidates file for the same position. Some local offices will also have their candidates thinned if the local unit uses the primary to narrow the field. Counties have primaries, but few small cities or schools do.

Minnesota is a national leader in voting so it is important to help people participate in this important process. The presidential primary is a step up from caucus polls, but our elected officials still need to make some modifications to ensure voters know exactly what will happen to their voting record once they participate in this worthy process.