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Minnesota House passes party privacy bill for presidential primaries

021520.N.RE.Primary Q&A
Voters at the downtown Minneapolis Hennepin County Government Center stand in line to cast their ballots for the 2020 primary on the morning of Jan. 17. That Friday marked the first day of early voting in Minnesota, and the first ballots cast for the 2020 primary in the nation. The primary will be March 3 in Minnesota as part of "Super Tuesday." Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House of Representatives by a 72-55 vote on Wednesday, Feb. 26, advanced a bill that would restrict how the state's major political parties can use voter data obtained in Tuesday's presidential primary contests.

Days ahead of the partisan primaries, supporters said the bill was needed to ensure voters that their decisions about which primary in which they voted would be kept private.

Lawmakers in 2016 agreed to make the move from caucuses to primaries in the presidential contests. And in 2018, in order to comply with the national parties' data collection and verification rules, they decided that parties can access lists of what voters voted in which primaries.

The lists are not meant to be distributed to the public, but lawmakers are concerned about one or several of the state's four major political parties going rogue: There are currently no restrictions in state law for what the parties do with the data, and some fear the parties could publish, sell or disseminate it.

At a news conference earlier on Wednesday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Minnesotans are "living in a different era than we were in 1992, when we last had a presidential primary," and the law has to evolve.

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"We know that people are much more protective of their private data and individuals that get our data are doing more with it," she said. "That is a legitimate and valid concern in 2020 to want to protect your party identification."

At the behest of Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, Democrats have taken a swing at putting restrictions around the voter lists. They argue that with voters concerned about where their data is going, they may be deterred from voting.

Meanwhile, opponents said changing the game less than a week before Super Tuesday would be a waste of time. On the House floor Wednesday, Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the bill was unnecessary, and that the issue has been blown out of proportion.

In previous years, when Minnesotans attended caucuses, parties got that participant data, too, he said. A primary is different than a general election in that it's inherently partisan, he said, and "it seems only right that they should know who participated in their primary."

He offered advice to Minnesotans concerned to participate in primaries for fear of their party affiliation being leaked: "If you're afraid and you don't want people to now you're a Republican or you're a Democrat, then maybe you shouldn't participate in a party process. And that's perfectly fine. You don't need to participate."

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, openly suspected more sinister motives to oppose the bill: "It's a peculiar argument to want to encourage people not to participate," he said after Daudt's remarks.

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Chair Ken Martin on Tuesday, Feb. 25, said he supports the House version of the privacy bill. And Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan on Tuesday said she would consider a privacy measure put forth by Senate Republicans but didn’t agree with the plan from House Democrats.

“We have processes, protocols, legal contracts on our side that prevent us from sharing the data anywhere,” Carnahan said. “To try to change the rules in the middle of the game, and at this point, we’re really only one week away from the primary, doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.”

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On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz expressed support for a voter privacy bill, saying he's "not a big fan of that data being shared with anybody else. I think we have to keep that private."

"I just worry about anything that suppresses voter turnout," he said. "I think right now people are really confused about what this means, who gets the data, how are they going to know."

Senate Republicans have proposed a separate plan to place the voter preference data under the state's privacy laws and set in place penalties of $1,000 to $15,000 for those who would willfully share it.

GOP, DFL and Legal Marijuana Now Party leaders have vowed to keep the lists private or to skip viewing them at the state level at all. While lists of voters who cast ballots in each primary will be available to each of the parties, the candidates for whom they cast their ballots will remain private. Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party hasn't publicly commented about its plan for the data.

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at smearhoff@forumcomm.com or 651-290-0707.
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