When Minnesota gives August primary elections a fourth try next week, only a small subset of the relatively few voters who show up at the polls will see an intraparty legislative contest on their ballots.
Many Aug. 9 primary election voters will find multiple candidates of one major party or another (or both) vying for Congress, and all eligible Minnesotans will have a chance to vote for state Supreme Court, the only statewide contest this year.
But only 26 of the races for Minnesota’s 201 legislative seats — 12 in the Senate, 14 in the House — have primary battles of any sort. And even in those districts, regular voters wouldn’t necessarily expect a contest. Only four districts in each body with contested primaries this year also had a contested primary in one of the last two election cycles.
Turning out voters for those races is a challenge in the dead of summer vacation season. In 2010, almost 16 percent of voters cast ballots in the state’s primary election. In 2012 that dropped to 9.32 percent, with only a slight bump up in 2014 to 10.19 percent.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said he estimates a low turnout Tuesday of at most 8 percent.
“Boy, it’s a real hard time to get people to think about it,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who faces two primary challengers Tuesday. Kahn said in an interview she preferred September primaries, last held statewide in 2008, when the start of school seemed to help people put politics in mind.
But some legislative campaigns are finding that Minnesota’s relatively new no-excuse early voting eases the cruelty of the election calendar.
Voters now need offer no reason or excuse for voting early by absentee ballot, either in person at county offices or by mail.
All three DFL candidates in Kahn’s district, House District 60B, are taking advantage of the 2014 law, now in effect for the second election cycle after its debut two years ago.
The contest in 60B pits the 22-term incumbent against Mohamud Noor and Ilhan Omar. As in 2014, when Noor gave Kahn an unsuccessful primary challenge, no candidate won the party’s endorsement at last April’s district convention.
The contest in Kahn’s district, 60B, pits the 22-term incumbent against Mohamud Noor and Ilhan Omar. As in 2014, when Noor gave Kahn an unsuccessful primary challenge, no candidate won the party’s endorsement at last April’s district convention.
In an interview Tuesday, Kahn said she figures she probably has the toughest primary challenge among her peers at the Capitol. And in her heavily DFL district, she said, “the primary is the election.”
Whoever wins, superlatives are on the line. Kahn is tied with Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, as the Legislature’s longest-serving House members ever. Should Noor or Omar win Tuesday and in November, District 60B, with a large population of East African immigrants, would be represented by the state’s first Somali-American legislator.
Omar’s candidacy this cycle makes the election Tuesday more than a Kahn-Noor rematch. It also makes it hard to handicap what will happen next week.
Does the August timing give anyone an advantage in a three-way race? “I have no idea,” Kahn said. “With three, it’s hard to say.” She speculated the election’s summer-vacation timing will make it more difficult to get votes from students, a key demographic in a district that includes the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College campuses.
Even so, said Dan Cox, Omar’s campaign manager, students are among those the campaign is helping to vote early. But they’re not the only ones. “An incredibly high percentage who early-vote are new Americans,” Cox said — a function, he figures, of a competitive race with compelling candidates.
Early voting is “an incredible asset,” Cox said, for any campaign dedicated to turning out voters who may have trouble getting to the polls on Election Day because of difficulty finding child care or other reasons.
Kahn agreed early voting made turning out voters for an August primary easier — “or a little harder,” she added with a laugh, “with more people voting against you.”
For Noor, experience last time around with early voting means this year “we’re running a different kind of campaign.” The emphasis is less on who did and didn’t vote in past elections, and more on getting new voters to the polls — for early voting if possible.
During an interview Tuesday afternoon, Noor was simultaneously directing volunteers shuttling supporters downtown to vote. His campaign has counted more than 300 new voters already, with a target of 20 per day in the lead-up to Tuesday. And that includes, he said, “people who got their citizenship today, who are voting today.”
Both Cox and Noor praised local election officials’ handling of early voting, with interpreters on hand and good polling place locations. On Tuesday, early voters could start putting their ballots into vote-tabulating machines just like on Election Day, which Noor said they found more assuring than the system of putting ballots in envelopes, which was in place until the last week.
That’s one of the new reforms signed into law this year that Ryan Furlong, spokesperson at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, said will make voting in primary and general elections easier for eligible Minnesotans. Others include making Veterans’ ID cards acceptable for same-day registration, and a simpler system for Minnesotans overseas in the military to ask for absentee ballots.
As of July 28, Hennepin County led the state in early ballots returned with 3,759. Furlong said larger spikes in turnout are generally driven by voter interest in candidates and issues on the ballot, not by anything his office can do by itself.
Secretary of State Steve Simon has challenged the people of Minnesota to return the state to number one in voter turnout, and introduced a variety of programs to help make that happen, including making available the largest collection yet of foreign language voter resources.
To encourage more new voters, the office has also launched a Pledge-to-Vote outreach initiative; Minnesota Students Vote 2016, the first statewide mock election for high school students; and Minnesota College Ballot Bowl, a competition among campuses across the state to register the most students. And an effort to reach young voters by mail will see nearly 100,000 unregistered voters, many of whom just turned 18, receiving a monthly mailing encouraging them to register to vote.
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