Monday, May 23, 2016

Dayton Signs Minnesota Presidential Primary Bill

The list of caucus states for 2020 decreased by one more on Sunday, May 22.

Already, Maine has shifted from caucus to primary for 2020, and now Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (D) has signed legislation triggering the same transition in the North Star state. Like Maine, the newly signed law does not specify a date for the new election, but instead defers the "when" decision to another party. Under the Maine primary law, the legislature cedes the decision-making authority to the secretary of state who consults with the state parties before settling on a date.

The new Minnesota law provides for a similar setup. However, the power flows in a different manner. As has been the case with the past Minnesota caucuses, the state parties have the right of first refusal. If they can agree on a date for the primary (see 2015 action on the caucus date), then the parties jointly set the date. Absent agreement (see 2011 inaction), though, the default date on which the secretary of state is to conduct a primary election is the first Tuesday in March. The power, then, is mostly housed within the state parties in Minnesota. In Maine, they only play a consulting role to the secretary of state, who makes the final decision on the date of the primary.

It is also worth noting that while there is no specified date in the new Maine law, it does restrict the window in which the primary can occur to a Tuesday in March. The parties in Minnesota are not as constrained. Earlier is often preferable and the past certainly suggests a convergence between the default date in the new law, the likely earliest date allowed by the national parties and what the state parties will ultimately choose. All of that points toward the first Tuesday in March. However, if they agree to it, the state parties in the Gopher state could opt for a later date -- outside of March -- for the primary as well.

As FHQ discussed during the Maine post, presidential primary legislation -- whether to shift the date or change to/from a primary -- is not common during presidential election years. Usually legislators wait to make a decision after -- not in the midst of -- a primary battle, heated or otherwise. That is not to say that the tendency is to wait until no one is paying attention. Rather, the decision is typically held until closer to the next election, a point after the national party rules for the following cycle have been set. That avoids unintended consequences (or the need to return to an issue and re-legislate). Of course, the Minnesota shift is a change that is likely well within the calendar window the national parties will establish for nominating contests in the 2020 cycle (barring unlikely fundamental changes to the nominating system).

If legislation in presidential election years is atypical, then changes are even rarer. Minnesota now makes the second state to have made a change in 2016 for 2020. Given the tradition the caucus holds in Minnesota, this was a move that was surprisingly uncontroversial. The 2016 legislative session opened in the wake of the March 1 caucuses in Minnesota and there was a bevy of legislation introduced during the last two weeks of March.

Of the seven bills that were introduced across both legislative chambers, four of them -- including SF 2985, the bill just signed into law -- basically called for the establishment of a primary election with date-setting authority vested in the state parties. The other three established the primary but kept the date decision in the hands of the legislature. Two called for a first Tuesday in March primary while the third proposed a would-be non-compliant first Tuesday in February date. Only SF 2985 and its state House companion ever got out of committee.

And SF 2985 did not really face much resistance other than time. It languished in committee, but with the legislative session in its waning days in early May, the effort to move from a caucus to a primary gathered steam. A flurry of activity pushed it first through the Democratic-controlled state Senate. Just over half of the minority Republican caucus (15 of 28 Republican senators) opposed the bill, but could not stop it from passing the chamber on the strength of support from a unified Democratic caucus and the remainder of the Republicans. On the House side there was only token opposition to an amended version of the Senate-passed bill. Nearly even numbers of Democratic (10) and Republican (13) representatives voted in opposition, but they were outgunned in a lopsided 106-23 final vote. That version found concurrence in the state Senate with only 11 votes in dissent before heading off to the governor's desk.

This is not the first attempt at such a change either. A similar caucus-to-primary effort failed just a year ago. And before that primary bills were introduced but never acted on in both 2008 and 2009.

Minnesota has had a history with presidential primaries, but the experience was minimal. There was a primary in 1992, but it was a beauty contest for Democrats (The party continued to use the caucuses.) and state Republicans used it in a year in which President George H.W. Bush saw only limited opposition for renomination.

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