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Low turnout expected for Aug. 9 primary election

ST. PAUL — Minnesotans may be the best at turning out for general elections, but they have voted in shrinking numbers in primary elections.

And for much of the state, there is not much on the Aug. 9 primary ballot to drive those numbers higher.

Some Minnesotans will face a short ballot with just one Supreme Court justice race as the only thing on the statewide ballot. Others will see legislative, district court or local races, too.

In House District 6A, which includes Hibbing, Chisholm, Nashwauk and Floodwood, four Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates are vying to advance to the general election; incumbent DFL Rep. Carly Melin is not seeking re-election.

Ben DeNucci, Julie Sandstede, Mike Thompson and Tom Whiteside are running as DFL candidates, with the winner advancing to face Republican Robert Farnsworth.

In western Duluth's District 7B, where incumbent Rep. Erik Simonson is vacating his seat to run for state Senate, Liz Olson and Bryan Jensen are vying for the DFL spot on the general election ballot; whoever advances will face Republican Cody Barringer.

There also are primary elections in two races for St. Louis County Board, in which the field will be reduced to two for November's general election:

In District 3, which covers the western third of Duluth, Jay Fosle, Kim McKay and Beth Olson are seeking to replace incumbent Chris Dahlberg, who is not running for re-election.

In District 7, which covers Hibbing, Chisholm, Floodwood, Meadowlands and the southwestern townships of the county, longtime incumbent Steve Raukar is not running for re-election. Michael Jugovich, Jeff Polcher, Mary Jo Rahja and Melissa Scaia are seeking to advance from the primary.

Elsewhere in the state, what may be the biggest primary race is in the 2nd Congressional District, with voters being asked to trim a four-Republican contest down to one for the Nov. 8 general election. The district, in the south Twin Cities and nearby rural areas, is served by Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who is not running again.

Two district court races have three-person primary contests, as do 27 of 201 state Legislature races.

For nonpartisan contests, such as in the courts, voters on Aug. 9 will trim the slate to two candidates. Where candidates run as party members, as in legislative races, one candidate will remain for each party.

"I see the primary as sort of a dress rehearsal for the general election," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who has set a goal of Minnesota reclaiming its general election voter turnout lead.

While Minnesota led the nation in the November election nine times (sometimes nearing 80 percent turnout), it dropped to No. 6 in 2014, and primary voting has been eroding for years.

Two years ago, 10 percent of eligible Minnesota voters turned out for the primary, and four years ago it was just 9 percent. That, however, was not the low-water mark; that came in 2004 when fewer than 8 percent voted.

In the 1950s and 1960s, about a third of voters went to the primary polls. While there have been turnout spikes in years with exciting contests, the numbers have been steadily falling.

Even a year like 2010, with now-Gov. Mark Dayton and then-House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher facing off in a primary, turnout was only 16 percent.

Primary election absentee ballots have been available for weeks, but starting a week before Election Day, casting them gets easier. Simon said that is when voters may go to their county's election offices and simply vote and put the ballot in the vote-counting machine instead of going through the time-consuming process of filling out two envelopes and placing the ballot in them.

County election offices also will accept absentee ballots from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the Saturday before Election Day.

Simon suggested that Minnesotans who want absentee ballots mailed to them should send in an application at least a week before Election Day.

Simon said the public remains interested in the no-excuse absentee ballot introduced in 2014. Before then, voters had to give a legal reason, such as plans to be gone on Election Day, before voting absentee.

There are a couple of changes for this election.

First, for the first time a military veteran identification card can be used to register at the polls.

Second, Simon's office added more languages (Amharic, Chinese, Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese) to its mnvotes.org website. That also is where voters may find out what is on their Aug. 9 ballot.

High court race a statewide question

All Minnesota voters will see at least one race on the Aug. 9 primary ballot, with two challengers to Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson, who Dayton appointed less than a year ago.

One candidate will be eliminated in the primary, leaving two for the Nov. 8 general election.

Craig Foss is one of Hudson's challengers. He graduated from Redwood Falls High School in 1988 and later became a lawyer, working as a defense attorney and was working in Alexandria for Legal Services of Minnesota when he was laid off in 2012.

"I have found that legally blind attorneys are not in great demand," Foss said. "I decided to see if I could get elected to a job."

The other Hudson challenger is Michelle MacDonald, who was the center of a controversy after state Republicans endorsed her 2014 Supreme Court run.

After the GOP endorsement, it was discovered she faced two charges after being arrested for drunken driving.

After learning of her arrest, Republican leaders refused to allow MacDonald at their State Fair booth in 2014. She created a commotion when she ran up against private security men who tried to keep her out of the booth.

Hudson, meanwhile, has been a justice since last October.

She has been an attorney for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, an associate attorney in employment law and general civil litigation at a Twin Cities law firm, assistant dean of student affairs at Hamline University School of Law, St. Paul city attorney, appeals court judge and lawyer in the Minnesota attorney general's office.

The News Tribune contributed to this report.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.