St. Louis County is bracing for voter feedback as the state's new Presidential Nomination Primary begins with absentee voting Friday, when registered voters will begin to be required to select a party affiliation in order to receive a ballot.
"This is a new process," Phil Chapman, county director of elections, said. "The DFL has its own ballot and the Republicans have their own ballot."
The change came as part of the 2016 legislative session, when lawmakers did away with presidential caucusing. The new format figures to come with headaches, either when Super Tuesday rolls around March 3, or sooner when voters request their absentee ballots.
"If somebody goes to their polling location and says, 'I'm not going to tell you,' then they can't vote," Chapman said.
The DFL ballot features 15 candidates and an "uncommitted" option, while President Donald Trump is the lone candidate on the GOP side along with a write-in option. Some candidates dropped out of the race late enough that they will still appear on the DFL ballot.
The new nomination primary will record a voter's choice of party on the hard-copy rolls of registered voters — the thick books in which voters sign their names next to their addresses. That data is entered with the Secretary of State's Office.
The information is officially considered private data, but it will be shared with the GOP, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and the state's other official parties, the two so-called "pot" parties: Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis and Legalize Marijuana Now.
The state statute that created the new primary, and affiliated state law, says little about how that data can be used by the political parties. Statute reads, with some vagueness: "This information is only available to registered Minnesota voters, and may only be used for purposes related to elections, political activities or law enforcement."
"It is flawed and needs to be corrected when we return (to session)," state Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, told the News Tribune. "I was pleased to move to a primary system, (but) I don’t recall this particular fact ever being brought up on the Senate floor."
David Maeda, director of elections working in the Secretary of State's office, confirmed there is little to protect a voter from a political party revealing a voter's party affiliation after the fact.
"I'm not aware of any non-public government data given to a public entity like this is," Maeda said.
When asked if there was nothing to compel the parties to keep the data private, Maeda said, "That's correct."
Rep. Jen Schultz, DFL-Duluth, said she brought up privacy issues in the state House. She made the point on Monday that the cat was already out of the bag.
"The parties have information on most voters already," she said. "They're already identifying what party you're likely to be with," based on canvassing, including phone calls, emails and door-knocking.
"We're already beyond the point of people keeping their political affiliation private, unfortunately," Schultz said. "What I hope it doesn't do is prevent people from voting."
Absentee voters will declare their party when they request their ballots. The only exception to voters receiving one ballot or the other are rural-most mail-ballot precincts, of which there are 24 in St. Louis County.
Mail-ballot voters will receive both ballots and are being instructed to send only one back. If both ballots are completed and returned, the ballots will be voided and the county will mail out the ballots again, reiterating the instructions. Mail-ballots are expected to go out at the end of January.
Chapman and the county are meeting with media outlets in an effort to get out the word that the Presidential Nomination Primary is a new way of doing business. Following the Super Tuesday primary, the state's party delegates are bound by the voters' decisions going forward. On the DFL side, an "uncommitted" vote tells the party that the voter wishes for the delegates to be sent to the national nominating convention without being bound to cast the state’s delegate votes for any one of their party’s candidates. So, "uncommitted" would need to win in order to keep Minnesota's DFL from being bound to its elected candidate.
Meanwhile, precinct judges and other election officials are being trained on ways to protect voters' party affiliations. When voters sign in, a cut-out stencil or some other mechanism will be used to cover up other names on the voter registry.
Also, election officials are being taught to approach the matter delicately in an effort to help either preempt or de-escalate any tension that might arise.
"That's what I'm anticipating," Chapman said.