Republican or Democrat? Which are you?
If you don’t want to answer that question — and you have to pick one or the other — you won’t be able to vote in Minnesota’s presidential primary.
And it won’t be a secret; all the major political parties — and there are now four in Minnesota — will know in which party primary you voted.
The information won’t technically be public — but there don’t appear to be restrictions on what the parties can do with it, although that might change.
That’s the new law in Minnesota, and if it makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
The state’s top election official, Secretary of State Steve Simon, doesn’t like it, either.
“This office is regularly and typically in a position of being a real cheerleader for voting,” Simon said in an interview. “This time, it comes with an asterisk.”
Starting this month, Simon’s office will start a public awareness campaign, including radio ads, in an effort to get out a nuanced message that amounts to something like this: Hey Minnesota, you’re probably really happy that we’ve got a presidential primary that will be a ton simpler than those caucuses, but there’s a privacy concern you need to understand.
“If you have a strong preference for a party or candidate, you should vote, but I want to make sure that everyone knows the rules,” Simon said.
Quick refresher: Minnesota will have a statewide primary for president for the first time in decades. Early absentee voting starts Jan. 17, and the actual primary will be March 3. The primary determines which candidates — one from each party — will be on the ballot for the November general election, which will determine the president. You go to your polling place to fill out a bubble on a ballot.
The main difference is that you have to tell the election workers which party’s ballot you want.
And that’s where the privacy concern comes in.
What the law says
Minnesotans are used to primaries. We’ve had them for years for state and local elected offices. We’ll have one in August this year.
In those primaries, you’re only allowed to vote in the races in one political party. That information is secret, just like your actual choices for candidates.
But in the presidential primary, the law is different. There’s a specific exception that says: “The secretary of state must maintain a list of the voters who voted in a presidential nomination primary and the political party each voter selected … (and) must provide the list to the chair of each major political party.”
Under current state law, there are four “major” political parties: the Republican Party of Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party.
Even though it doesn’t appear that either of the two legal-pot parties will field a candidate for president, Simon said the party chair of each will be given the information that will include your name and the party whose ballot you chose.
To be clear, there will only be one name on the Republican primary ballot: Donald J. Trump, as well as a space for a write-in. A little-known candidate, Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, is suing to get his name on the ballot as well.
On the Democratic side, there will be 15 choices.
Must declare a party
Unlike in some states, Minnesota’s new presidential primary law won’t allow you to declare yourself an “independent” or “unaffiliated.”
A provision of the law states that to get a ballot, you’ll have to sign a statement that reads: “I am in general agreement with the principles of the party for whose candidate I intend to vote.” There’s no penalty for signing your name even if you don’t agree with that statement.
“You have to pick a jersey, you have to pick a team: red or blue,” Simon said.
Officials with all the parties have told state officials they don’t plan to share the information, but Simon said his reading of the law is that nothing would prevent them from doing do.
“It doesn’t take much imagination to think about certain professions, including your own,” he said, “who might be wary of participating in this not knowing where that data’s going to go: journalists, members of the clergy, school administrators, county and city officials. I’ve had city clerks who have told me, ‘I’m not comfortable voting in this contest because effectiveness in my job depends on an appearance of objectivity.’ ” (Journalistic codes of ethics instruct journalists to avoid partisan activities, but it’s unclear how many follow that in Minnesota.)
What other states do
Most states have some sort of party registration similar to what Minnesota is now adopting. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia, including neighboring South Dakota and Iowa, allow voters to pick a party when they register. In some states, that information isn’t only known to the parties; it’s public.
But even though plenty of voters openly advertise their party of choice, Minnesota has never had such a system. The change to a presidential primary was only supposed to make it easier to exercise your right to select a presidential candidate than evening caucuses. The new law wasn’t intended to make it a party-registration state, and Simon said he’s already heard from voters who fear for their jobs if their party affiliation gets out.
“To me, this feels like a back-door party registration system,” he said.
Why the law is like this
During the past several presidential election years, caucuses — small evening gatherings in schools and community centers — often became overcrowded, while many who wanted to participate complained that the gatherings were antiquated and not flexible enough to allow everyone to participate. Party leaders and lawmakers heard the complaints, and in 2016, the primary law was enacted.
However, under that law, voters’ party affiliation would be public — completely. When word of that got out, lawmakers faced pressure to make it private, and they set out to do that.
But then the parties stepped in — both of them. In an uncommon show of bipartisan agreement, Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan and DFL Chairman Ken Martin both lobbied for the exception that would allow them to get the information. They both made the same case: The national parties wouldn’t recognize Minnesota’s primary if the parties didn’t get to know the party choice of each voter.
Lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Tim Walz agreed to the exception. In his recent interview, Simon, a Democrat and former lawmaker himself, emphasized several times that he wasn’t involved in final discussions over the primary law, and isn’t happy with the result.
Martin said he understands the unease of the situation.
“We believe in the sanctity of this data, that it should be private,” he said recently, responding to reporters’ questions. “The only reason we requested it in the first place was to comply with our national rules. If we didn’t have that requirement, we wouldn’t have asked for that data.”
Carnahan noted that in past presidential years, each party knew who participated via sign-in sheets at a caucus.
“This year’s presidential primary data is similar to past years’ caucus data gathered by both major political primaries,” she said in a statement. “This data will help the Republican Party of Minnesota (and the Minnesota DFL) access Minnesota’s landscape, activate new volunteers and Republican activists, and continue to build our party operations as we work to turn Minnesota red in 2020.”
Among the differences between the primary data and the caucus data is that the government is collecting it and that all four political parties will have access to all the data.
Simon said there’s one way voters might be able to rest assured that their party choice doesn’t get out: change the law to restrict what the parties can do with the data once they have it.
Even though it’s too late to change the law before the March 3 primary, he said it typically takes six to eight weeks for his office to gather all the data from around the state. That would give lawmakers enough time to change the law to mirror restrictions on existing voter data: It can’t be used for any commercial purposes or generally disseminated.
He said he plans to push for exactly that shortly after the Legislature reconvenes in February.
“Maybe I can try to provide some downstream controls,” he said. “That’s all I can try to do.”