This month’s meager primary voter turnout has caused Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders from both parties to once again mull moving the primary to June.
Just 9 percent of registered Minnesota voters turned out for the August 14 primary. While not everyone agrees that timing is the decisive factor in turnout, Dayton told reporters on the day after the primary that the lazy days of summer are not conducive to robust political participation.
“I’ve long favored having the primary the first Tuesday in June,” he said. “From that point on, most Minnesotans are enjoying the summer and the weather. Then, post-Labor Day, they come back and campaigns get re-organized and move ahead.”
Dayton’s viewpoint was seconded on Friday during TPT-TV’s “Almanac” public affairs program when Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin and Minnesota GOP Chair Pat Shortridge both voiced support for moving the primary to June.
The primary date was changed from September to August a little more than two years ago. Lawmakers agreed on a bipartisan basis back then that the primary needed to be earlier because it was so close to the general election that missionaries and military personnel overseas weren’t able to submit their ballots in time to be counted.
Former GOP Rep. Laura Brod was one of the key players in the 2010 legislation. She said she would have preferred moving the date back to June, but August proved to be the compromise solution.
“Moving the primary up to June would be ideal,” she said, “in that it would give the citizens almost five months to get to know those candidates, and I don’t see how that can be bad.”
Political opinion divided
But Brod noted the June primary drew criticism from some quarters in the Legislature, and the August date was the best deal she could get at the time.
“I think there is some concern by incumbents that if it’s a June primary, they don’t have the time to get out there and talk to their constituents,” Brod said. “Interestingly, some other folks argue that a June primary is incumbent protection. It’s interesting to hear the arguments, and I would call them the excuses for the status quo.”
Legislators opposed to a June primary cite various reasons. During a lengthy debate on the House floor in early April, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, spoke against the idea, noting that it would further embed the candidate-endorsing season within the timeframe of the legislative session. He also claimed it would force incumbents to announce their retirements before the end of the legislative session, causing their influence to plummet as a result.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the June primary would give incumbents the advantage in a primary by shortening the time available for a challenger to scrutinize an officeholder’s record.
“It makes it pretty difficult for somebody who wants to challenge us as incumbents,” Anderson said. “There is a power of incumbency here in the Legislature. And you’re going to say that someone is going to turn around and challenge us in an election after just 16 months of us serving in office, without even seeing our final votes in the second year of our term.”
Critics of the alleged incumbent-protection factor in a June primary also contend that legislators get an unfair advantage by being able to use their office to gain publicity when the primary is held soon after session.
Reps. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, who authored a joint Star Tribune op-ed this week arguing for a June primary, say that many of the arguments against the move are based on personal electoral concerns rather than the larger priority of fostering voter participation.
“It affects every legislator,” Daudt said. “So every legislator, as much as they would love to try to separate themselves from the issue, can’t help but think: ‘Is this going to help me or hurt me in my own re-election?’ I have to think that is shaping some of the opinions on this issue.”
Effort stalled in Senate
Since 2010, the June primary has gained more traction in the House, where Daudt and Simon are the leading voices among a bipartisan group that tried to advance it during the 2012 legislative session. Back in March, the bill easily passed the House Government Operations and Elections Committee and from there went to the general register.
The Senate failed to act on its bill at the committee level before the policy deadline. So the House tacked its June primary bill onto a Senate file that dealt with absentee ballots. In conference committee, the June primary provision stayed in the bill. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, fielded stern questions from senators on the floor, who pointed out that the June primary change hadn’t received a public airing in their chamber. The conference report was rejected 35-30 and was sent back to conference committee. After the conferees stripped out the June primary, the bill passed the Senate 48-14 and the House 127-0.
Daudt said the bill’s unorthodox path in this year’s session made it difficult to round up the votes needed for passage. He is hoping a cleaner process next year will alleviate some of the concerns and advance the bill to Dayton.
The Legislature isn’t the only hurdle for the June primary, however. County officials and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie also have concerns about moving to June.
Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, who formerly worked in the secretary of state’s office, said the June primary raises concerns among counties, especially in rural areas, that handle tax filings in the spring.
“If you talk to the rural county auditors, I think they are less interested in the June primary because of all of the tax payments that are going on in May and other things that are going on that are not election-related,” Mansky said.
Unlike Dayton, Martin and Shortridge, Ritchie doesn’t think the primary date has a big effect on turnout. He noted turnout was much larger in 2010 when the August primary featured a hard-fought and much publicized statewide contest for the DFL gubernatorial nomination between Dayton and former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“Discussions about moving the dates are not relevant in relationship to the question of turnout,” Ritchie said. “If you wanted to increase turnout, you’d go to all vote-by-mail and you would have exciting races.”
Ritchie said the move to a June primary has implications that lawmakers should address in committee before such a plan advances to the floor. For example, Ritchie noted that candidates in local races, such as school board elections, are less likely to make plans to run when the general election is that far away. Lawmakers also need to consider the effect on signature-gathering and candidate filing periods that moving the primary to June would entail.
“Are the various people who are speaking out thinking about the wide range of impacts and then trying to craft a legislative debate process that brings those perspectives together for a very good, widely supported bill?” Ritchie said.
Daudt said he met with Ritchie recently to talk about the issues he has raised and believes a satisfactory bill can be crafted. He also said the concerns raised by counties can be allayed, noting that the legislation wouldn’t place additional work on them beyond what they currently do.
Still looming large, though, are the electoral concerns among legislators, many of whom are from Daudt’s own party.
“If there are problems, we want to find solutions,” Daudt said. “If people are going to bring up problems just as a way to kill the bill because they don’t like it, because they feel it’s a disadvantage to them personally, I’m not interested in that.”