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Column: Still time to protect Minnesota voter privacy

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On Tuesday, Minnesota voters have an important decision to make.

But before they can decide who they will support in the state’s first presidential primary in 28 years, they will have to decide if they even want to participate.

As you may recall, four years ago, the caucus system was a case study in organized chaos, and it launched a groundswell of support for moving back to the simpler primary voting process. Rather than dedicate hours of a day to slowly winnowing down platform planks and candidates to get to the presidential-preference picking, now Minnesota voters simply have to show up at their polling place and cast a vote to support a presidential hopeful.

But there is a catch.

The law that brought the primary back also included a provision that requires election judges to add which party you choose to support into a database. This database will then be provided to the leaders of the state’s four major parties. (In addition to the DFL and Republicans, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party are considered major parties in Minnesota, given their results in recent elections.) With this new database, there are no strings attached for how parties are allowed to use it.

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Want to use it for party-building? Sure. Want to sell it to the highest bidder and let them do with it what they will? No problem. Want to post it online so everyone in Minnesota can know which party you voted for in the primary? Not out of the question.

While the state is home to many proud partisans, it is also home to an even greater number of people who prefer to keep their politics close to their vest. Most businesses and nonprofits have learned not to wade too deeply into political issues because of the blowback they could receive from the half of society that likely disagrees with any hot-button issue. Journalists and judges are similarly bound by the appearances of impartiality. And imagine how different family holiday gatherings would be if an internet connection was all that separated your voting preference from becoming the focus of dinnertime conversation?

The good news is that the Legislature has announced a couple of plans to fix this issue. A group of House Republicans led by Rep. Peggy Scott was first out of the gate with a bill (HF3217) that would purge the data collected from early ballots already cast and prevent the election judges from documenting personal party preference of any voter going forward. A bipartisan group of legislators from the House and Senate have put forth a set of bills (HF3068/SF2986/SF3055) that would allow the data to still be collected but would put more protections around how it can be used — and allow voters to opt out of being identified by party of preference. That bill appears to have the most momentum currently, as the House has already passed it off the floor, and it now awaits action on the Senate companion bills.

Complicating things a bit may be a bill introduced by State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee Chair Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer. Her bill (SF3482) contains some modest privacy protections but appears to contain some unnecessary wiggle room that would allow the data to be used for “political purposes.”

The Scott bill is the one that makes the most sense, as it removes the temptation of even having this database. If it doesn’t exist, there is no need to play defense every year to make sure some of the current privacy concerns don’t slowly sneak back in. The compromise bill seems to have the most potential and momentum currently. And the Kiffmeyer bill shows that the former secretary of state is serious about protecting voter privacy as well.

As the law is now written, the current secretary of state is required to deliver the database to the party chairs within 10 weeks of the primary. So, technically, the Legislature has until nearly the end of the legislative session to fix this rather serious problem.

But why wait?

Minnesota is jeopardizing its status as one of the nation’s leaders in voter turnout by giving voters reason to stay home for fear that their party preference may be released in some public fashion. And passing a bipartisan bill before the upcoming election while we are still early in the session would give everyone involved an early win and set a collaborative tone as the session continues to roll forward.

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This legislation is a win for everyone involved. The question is, will the Legislature act in time to reap the rewards?

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera is executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. Susie Brown is president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. B. Kyle is president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Jon Pratt is executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Jonathan Weinhagen is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber. And Michelle Witte is executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota. They submitted this exclusively to the News Tribune.

Related Topics: ELECTION 2020
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