Sean Fahnhorst works behind the scenes for the state of Minnesota, preparing the state budget based on the preferences of his boss — the governor.
He likes his gig and wants to do similar work indefinitely, no matter who’s in charge.
That’s why he’s hesitant to participate in the state’s new presidential primary election on March 3, which technically kicked off Friday with the start of early absentee voting. It’s the first primary in the state in nearly 30 years, a switch made after high turnout in 2016 bogged down the party-run caucus system with long lines and confusing rules that frustrated voters.
Minnesota’s new presidential primary system, run and paid for by the state, is expected to be logistically smoother. But for many voters like Fahnhorst, there’s a big trade-off. The new system also records voters’ party preference and provides that data to the chairs of each major political party.
The law says nothing about what the parties should — or shouldn’t — do with that information.
“Down the road, could this impact my government career if I’m identified early on as committed to one party or the other, knowing that at some point who’s in the governor’s office could change?” Fahnhorst said. “Now with how easy it is to access data and analyze data, the fact that it’s recorded once, it could be recorded for a long time.”
Critics see it as a taxpayer-funded subsidy for party building and a backdoor to party registration, a system used in 31 other states and the District of Columbia where voters pick a party affiliation when they register to vote.
Under the new system, presidential primary voters must pledge that they are “in general agreement with the principles of the party” in order to get a ballot and vote. There are four major parties in the state: the DFL Party, the Republican Party of Minnesota, the Legal Marijuana Now Party and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party. But only the GOP and DFL submitted candidates for the primary, meaning they are the only options voters can pick.
In party registration states, voters have the option to identify as independent or unaffiliated with a specific party.
“If I want to [pledge as an independent], I don’t get to participate, and that feels like disenfranchisement,” said Josh Hengemuhle, who participated in the Republican caucus four years ago but now wants to vote in the Democratic primary. “That’s a challenging statement to make when, frankly, I don’t think either of them are doing that well.”
The privacy concerns extend beyond those in government. People in business, nonprofits, academia and other public-facing endeavors also could have reason to worry.
“It’s not just public employees, it’s journalists, members of the clergy, school administrators and others who are in a position that they believe demands they project objectivity and be objective,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who is seeking to change the law. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anyone in any of those professions having a political preference, but by virtue of their jobs they want to keep that private and personal, and that should be their right.”
Hengemuhle works with students at the University of St. Thomas and worries that having to declare for one party or another could be used against him if the parties ever made that information public.
“Those participations, in a polarized society, can be used in a weaponized way,” he said.
When lawmakers switched to the primary system in 2016, the law originally made voters’ party preference publicly available. But Simon went to lawmakers in 2019 and pushed to make the voter data private. At the end of last legislative session, behind closed doors, a deal was negotiated to limit the data’s availability to all four party chairs.
The two pro-marijuana parties won’t have a ballot in the election, but the chair of those parties will still get a list of voters’ names and party preference for everyone who voted in the primary, as do the chairs of the Republican and DFL parties. Only the candidate a voter selects is secret.
Simon, a DFLer, said he was puzzled by the result.
“I think it’s reasonable to assume if you participate in a caucus you might get contacted by that party,” he said. “What they don’t expect is that three other parties will also get their data.”
Technically, the parties could sell that data, or even post it online.
Simon is pushing to amend the law in the upcoming legislative session, which convenes in February, to restrict how the parties can use the data. For their part, the chairs of the state’s two largest political parties say they don’t want the data for nefarious reasons or financial gain.
“The goal was to use it to attract new volunteers and activists to get more engaged in the civic process, and to help us when we look at the landscape and the map of Minnesota in strategically how we want to move forward closer to election time,” said Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said he only needs the data to meet a requirement from the national Democratic Party to record people who participate in early preference contests, and he supports the effort from Simon to lock down the data.
“I contend one of the reasons we have high voter turnout is because we have an open primary, we don’t require party registration,” Martin said. “I know what I’m going to do with the data and what I’m not going to do with the data, but I have no clue what the pot parties are going to do with the data, or what the Republican Party is going to do with the data.”