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Privacy questions raised over new primary voting system

MARSHALL — The lead-up to the 2020 presidential election officially got started in Minnesota on Friday with the start of early absentee voting for a presidential primary. It will be the state’s first presidential primary since 1992 — but there are still some questions over how the March 3 primary might affect participation in precinct caucuses, area residents said.

Minnesota will be using a new system for presidential primaries this year, said Lyon County Auditor/Treasurer E.J. Moberg. Instead of a split ballot, there will be two separate ballots, one Democratic and one Republican. Voters will need to choose a party affiliation in order to get a ballot and vote.

Fifteen candidates are on the Democratic ballot, although some have already dropped out of the race. The Democratic ballot also includes a choice for “uncommitted.” The GOP ballot lists only President Donald Trump, but write-in votes are allowed.

Voters’ party preferences in the primary will be recorded, and the data will be made available to each major political party in Minnesota, Moberg said.

Some Minnesotans are raising privacy concerns about how their data could potentially be used, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week. However, some Marshall area residents said the new system raises some different questions for them.

It’s not unusual for states to collect party affiliation information, said David Sturrock, professor of political science at Southwest Minnesota State University. Around 30 states do so, he said. For example, party affiliation is part of the information South Dakota residents must give when they register to vote.

“This is a controversy in Minnesota because we’ve never had that,” Sturrock said of collecting party preference data. “Most voters in most places wouldn’t look at it that way.”

The practice of party registration really began about 100 years ago with the Progressive Era, Sturrock said. But while Minnesota was politically influenced by the Progressive movement, it didn’t pick up on that practice.

Sturrock said the switch to holding a presidential primary vote this year came as a response to an overwhelming increase in people attending precinct caucuses in 2016, partly to participate in a straw poll for presidential candidates. A precinct caucus is a meeting run by a Minnesota political party, where parties select delegates and set party platforms, in addition to polling to support political candidates.

Having a separate presidential primary vote is meant to make the caucus process smoother. However, Sturrock said he thought there could be other criticisms of the move. One is that the state could be seen as being too accommodating to political parties, giving them an “unprecedented opportunity” to get valuable voter data.

The way the primary vote is set up also gives political parties a lot of influence on what candidates get put on the ballot, Sturrock said. There are other states where ballots are set by the Secretary of State’s Office, or administrators in charge of running the election.

Sturrock didn’t think privacy concerns would keep people from voting in the primary.

“People have strong opinions about presidential candidates for both parties,” he said. However, it remains to be seen how having a separate primary vote will affect attendance at precinct caucus meetings on Feb. 25.

Debbie Clark, co-chairperson of the Lyon County Republicans, said she hadn’t heard concerns about privacy, and declaring a party affiliation was “not a new thing” in primaries. However, she thought the primary could have a big impact on caucus participation.

“For a lot of people, that (poll) is their motivation,” Clark said. “Four years ago, people came out of the woodwork to vote for President Trump.”

It’s hard to know exactly what kind of crowd to expect at the caucus this year, Clark said. “I guess it will be a learning year.”

Ben Walker, secretary of the Lyon County DFL, said he also hadn’t heard any concerns about voter privacy over the presidential primary. Instead, the local DFL is more concerned that people may confuse the primary with the precinct caucus, or decide not to attend the caucus meeting.

“People understand voting more than they understand caucuses,” and may not want to attend without a presidential straw poll, Walker said. “We’re hoping that doesn’t deter people.”

Walker said the Lyon County DFL plans to send out fliers to party members highlighting the differences between the presidential primary and the precinct caucuses, as well as the dates for the two. The organization will also be holding caucus training, to help increase understanding of how precinct caucuses work, Walker said.

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