Any account of the origins of the 2020 Minnesota presidential primary and the recent backlash over voter privacy must begin with the evening of March 1, 2016, when there wasn’t a lot of voter privacy to be had.

That night, Republicans and DFLers held precinct caucuses in a year when both parties’ contests for president were open and contested. High interest led to meetings that were overcrowded and chaotic, with some voters giving up and going home rather than wait hours to participate.

The response was the creation of the Minnesota Presidential Nominating Primary, the state’s first presidential primary in three decades and part of a national trend away from caucuses.

But recently, as early voting got under way for the March 3, 2020 election, complaints about voter privacy have begun to surface — specifically about the fact that the state’s major political parties will not only get a list of every voter who takes part in the voting — but which party primary they took part in.

So how did we get here? How bad were the 2016 caucuses?

There were an estimated 207,000 Democrats and 114,000 Republicans who officially participated in Minnesota’s 2016 caucuses: signing in to the gatherings with their name, address and a pledge that they adhered to what the party stood for. Bernie Sanders won the most support among Democrats, and Marco Rubio prevailed among Republicans.

But some of the caucus gatherings were so unpleasant, and the publicity so bad, that the chairs of the state’s two dominant parties — Ken Martin for the DFL and Keith Downey for the GOP — were ready to make the shift to a presidential primary.

Lawmakers from both parties were also on board. “If we try and continue to operate a system where our capacity to encourage people to participate is blown away by the people eager to participate, it seems to me we end up discouraging people,” said sponsor Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.

The bill to create the new election passed easily and was signed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton on May 22, 2016 — less than three months after what would be, for now, the last presidential nominating caucuses in Minnesota.

So how did it get to be that voters’ party preference isn’t private?

Secretary of State Steve Simon has been answering that question since 2016, but the explanation still hasn’t sunk in with many voters.

As a nominating process run by two private entities — the national Democratic and Republican parties — it’s an election unlike what most Minnesota voters are used to, said Simon. As such, the parties insist on controls over the process to ensure that only Democrats take part in the Democratic nomination process and only Republicans take part in the Republican nomination. The parties also get to decide which candidates appear on the ballot, whether write-ins are allowed, and whether voters can opt to send uncommitted delegates to the national conventions.

To participate, voters will sign in and request the ballot of one party or the other. Signage will tell them that their choice will be communicated to the parties, which can use that data to assess whether there was organized mischief (such as known Republicans crossing over to try to nominate a weak Democrat).

Martin said last week that he doesn’t believe in the existence of crossover voting. “The ability for a party to orchestrate a wholesale attempt to influence someone else’s party is next to nil,” Martin said.

Still, both national parties have rules that demand that states provide some way of knowing who voted in which primary, a requirement dubbed “recordation.” No lists, no presidential primary.

Simon said the Legislature agreed to that demand and to pay the $11.9 million cost of the primary because the state has an interest in an orderly process to nominate the president of the United States.

So why do Democrats get the GOP list and why do Republicans get the DFL list?

The 2016 bill authorizing the primary made the party preference lists public. Prior to the 2019 legislative session, however, Simon proposed a change that would exempt the lists from the state Data Practices Act and make it so that the lists only went to their respective parties: the Democratic list would go to Democrats, the Republican list to Republicans.

But when the election omnibus bill was in conference committee, Simon’s proposal was changed in two significant ways. First, all major parties, including the two new marijuana legalization parties — the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party (neither of which will be participating in the presidential primary) — would get both the DFL and GOP lists. Second, whoever possessed the lists could use them any way they wanted, including making the information public or posting it online.

Now the lists, both their existence and what use might be made of the information, are making some voters leery of taking part, though not unwilling to complain to Simon, legislators, the parties themselves and to local newspapers about it.

How valuable are those lists, anyway?

Very. Parties create voter lists based on contributions, attendance at party events and caucuses, and information provided to canvassers. Such lists are provided to endorsed candidates, and are one of the main rewards of winning a party’s endorsement.

Because the turnout for a primary is expected to far exceed that of caucuses, the number of voters on the presidential primary list will be far larger than it would be otherwise. More voters means better data.

“In any organization or corporation you work in you make decisions based on data,” the GOP’s current chair, Jennifer Carnahan, told MinnPost last spring. That data can identify demographic shifts over time and help decide where party resources should be targeted. “Having visibility of all the data can help both political parties in understanding opportunities in areas that have shifted,” Carnahan said.

Martin said that the party spends time and money trying to get party preference information on the state’s voters, but estimates that he has no information on between 30 percent and 40 percent of voters. The presidential primary list, like caucus sign-in sheets, “will be used by our local units to recruit people to volunteer and run for office and become active members of our party,” he said. “Caucuses in the past and now primaries, in addition to being a nominating process, they’re also a party building exercise. It gives us a new list of people to approach to be volunteers and become activists.”

The 2019 changes, however, mean that data will also go to political rivals who could use it against the DFL and its candidates, Martin said. That possibility led Martin to first complain to Simon about the secretary of state’s interpretation of the new law — and then to consider litigation to block the state from giving the information to the marijuana parties.

Martin ended up deciding against suing Simon, but he said he wants to see changes made for the 2024 election.

Are there efforts to change the way lists are used before in-person voting begins?

Yes.

Will they happen? Probably not.

The 2020 legislative session begins Feb. 11, the election is March 3 (though early voting has been available since Jan. 17), and voter lists are due no later than 10 weeks later. If a change is meant to reassure voters, lawmakers don’t have much time.

Even so, Simon has been shopping a plan asking lawmakers to quickly pass a bill that would further restrict how voter data is used by the political parties this election. Under the plan, data would go not to the state parties but directly to their national organizations. There, data-driven assessments can be made to look for signs of crossover voting. The proposal would also allow voters to opt out of having their data shared.

“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 in a Jan. 14 letter to Carnahan and Martin.

“People fear that this information may be leaked, or will otherwise surface in a way that reveals their private political preferences,” Simon wrote. “They fear that such a breach could compromise their ability to do their jobs effectively.”

Said Martin of voter backlash: “It didn’t catch me by surprise, but it’s been loud.”

While Martin was amenable to Simon’s proposal, Carnahan was not. Martin claimed she canceled a meeting with Simon and the other party chairs and did not respond to his letters asking for agreement on the plan.

Instead, the Republican chair sent out a press statement condemning the attempt to change the law. While Martin said the Simon proposal was meant to encourage otherwise reluctant voters to take part in the primary, Carnahan accused him of the opposite.

“Voting is one of the greatest rights and civic duties we are afforded by living in the United States of America,” Carnahan stated in the press release. “Yet the DFL is actively working to dissuade Minnesotans from participating in the March 3rd Presidential Primary, for which voting is already open.”

Carnahan said she opposed changing the rules of the primary in the middle of the election. She also said that her party took voter privacy seriously and that there was no evidence from other states misusing voter lists.

Martin said he was disappointed that Carnahan wouldn’t even meet with Simon and the other chairs. “Instead of responding to me and instead of engaging in this process in any meaningful way, Jennifer Carnahan decided to lob partisan bombs that completely misrepresented the DFL position and cast aspersions on the concerns of Minnesota voters,” Martin said.

But time isn’t the only problem with Simon’s plan. Though two GOP House members — Rep. Peggy Scott of Andover and Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington — were set to announce a bill “to protect voter privacy,” Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who is the GOP lead on election and state government issues, has said she opposes making any changes this year. (UPDATE: The Scott bill would stop collection of any party preference information, a move already rejected by Martin and Kiffmeyer)

Unless GOP senators are feeling enough heat from voters, nothing will pass in time for the 2020 presidential primary.

Martin said this week that if Kiffmeyer refuses to take up the issue he will likely make a solo pledge to send the voter data to the national party for a statistical assessment on participation and not use it for any other purpose.

“If it’s just us, so be it,” he said. “We won’t use the data.”

Peter Callaghan covers state government for MinnPost.

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