Partisan feud over voter data erupts weeks ahead of Minnesota primaries

Democrats along with Secretary of State Steve Simon proposed restrictions on what political parties could do with primary voter lists.

Voters at the downtown Minneapolis Hennepin County Government Center stand in line to cast their ballots for the 2020 primary on the morning of Friday, Jan. 17. Friday marked the first day of early voting in Minnesota, and the first ballots cast for the 2020 primary in the nation. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A little more than a month before Minnesota's presidential primary contests, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders on Thursday, Jan. 23 said state lawmakers should set restrictions on how political parties can use voter data obtained in the elections.

The move to write new legislation comes after DFL Party leaders said they heard concerns from editorial boards, voter advocacy groups and voters concerned about keeping their party affiliation a secret. It would be the third time state legislators take a run at the rules around the information as Minnesota moves from partisan caucuses to primaries for the first time in almost three decades.

Lawmakers in 2016 agreed to make the move from caucuses to primaries in the presidential contests. And in 2018, they decided the lists of those who voted in the primaries could go to the major political parties, but not to the public.

And now, Secretary of State Steve Simon and DFL leaders said the Legislature should act quickly to go a step further and make sure the voter data is used only by national parties to comply with party rules aimed at preventing skewed results.

"This is in response to the fact that Minnesota voters have made it clear. Editorial boards across the state have made it clear that we have something special in this state because we don't have party registration," Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin said, "because we respect the right for people to participate without that sort of influence."


Earlier in the week, Martin asked the three other major party chairs to sign onto a letter asking Minnesota legislative leaders to pass bipartisan legislation restricting the parties' use of the data to what their national party organizations need, allowing voters to opt-out of having their information collected and making voter data private under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Giving each party the list of voters who cast ballots in the DFL and GOP primaries would create "a back-end attempt to try to create party registration in the state," Martin said. And Martin said he worried that allowing the state's major parties to obtain primary voter lists would cause a chilling effect that could keep some from voting.

But Republican Party leaders said they'd not heard concerns from voters and didn't agree with the move to limit what the state's four major political parties could do with the information. They pointed to the bipartisan fashion in which the current limits on the data were approved and said those were sufficient to ensure voters' privacy.

“I’m just not in alignment with Ken and Steve Simon’s view on the approach of data,” Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said. “You don’t go change the rules of the game in the middle of the game. We have to let the process play out and continue to move forward."

Carnahan said if there was anything creating a chilling effect on primary voting, it was DFL leaders' comments about where the information could go.

"I think that they are heightening up a fear, putting out there that, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling’ when the sky is not falling," she said.

Both the GOP and DFL have said they won't make public the information obtained in the primaries. And party leaders said they'd only use the information at the state level to guide decisions about which voters they reach out to and which to skip. Marty Super, chair of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, said he had no plan to review or share the data because he felt voters' decisions should be kept private. And Super said he planned to stay out of the discussion about changes to the primary.

The deadline to pass legislation ahead of the March 3 primaries would be tight as lawmakers return to St. Paul Feb. 11. And a key leader in the Senate said she wasn't planning to take up the proposals.


"With the voting process already underway, let’s see how this works in 2020," Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said. "If we need to make changes, there is plenty of time to do so before 2024.”

Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party leadership didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Lists of voters that cast ballots in the DFL and GOP contests will be available to all four parties, but the candidates for whom they cast their ballots will remain private.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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