Voters head to primary elections

Andrew Pritchard

Minnesota holds primary elections today, allowing voters to choose which candidates will officially represent each political party in November’s general election.

And to most voters, that doesn’t mean a thing.

Turnout for all voters in Minnesota primary elections has ranged in recent years from 9.84 percent in 1988 to a high of 17.1 percent in 1992. Of 3.57 million eligible Minnesota voters in the 2000 primaries, 578,000 cast their votes, according to numbers provided by the secretary of state’s office.

Young voters, such as University students, are the age group least likely to vote. According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds voting has declined every year since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972.

This year’s primaries feature two close contests that could lure more voters to the polls.

Race to watch No. 1: Green Party, U.S. Senate

The Green Party’s U.S. Senate race will be this year’s most-watched primary contest, as endorsed candidate Ed McGaa fights to keep the party’s support from challenger Ray Tricomo.

Tricomo received an unexpected boost last Tuesday when media reports described McGaa’s involvement in a controversial 1980s plan to remove sewage ash from the Mississippi River banks in the Twin Cities to his land near South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

McGaa has defended the project as environmentally sound.

“All you people downstream, you owe me a vote in the primary,” he said. “I cleared up your drinking water.”

Green Party-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel withdrew his support from McGaa last Tuesday, saying in a written statement that McGaa is “still taking some positions that are in evident conflict with the Green Party platform.”

McGaa’s candidacy under the Green Party banner has stirred opposition from some party members since the party convention, where some delegates urged against endorsing any U.S. Senate candidate to avoid drawing votes from incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone.

“We were expecting shots from Democrats and Wellstone people,” said Karen Carlson, one of McGaa’s managers. “We were not expecting to have to fight these battles within our own party.”

Since the convention, McGaa has campaigned on his military service record, said he favors regulated genetically modified food, and made statements some Greens interpreted as calling protesting unpatriotic.

“People need to know very clearly that when they vote Green, they are voting for a set of values,” Pentel said in his statement. “Ed has simply not carried himself consistently in a way that indicates an understanding of this basic principle.”

Tricomo said the ash disposal project was a “sad revelation,” but added he would not make it a major campaign issue because the facts are still disputed.

The St. Cloud Green Party chapter endorsed Tricomo late Sunday, shortly after the August endorsement by the Duluth Green Party.

Tricomo said he is running as a serious candidate and that his campaign is more than a symbolic gesture.

“This is not about taking votes from Paul Wellstone,” he said. “He’s taking votes from me.”

Carlson said although she was “totally unable to make a prediction” about Tuesday’s outcome, the past week’s media coverage has not necessarily given Tricomo an advantage over McGaa.

“I think Minnesota voters are more intelligent than political figures or the media assume them to be,” she said. “Sometimes bad media does generate good things in the end.”

Race to watch No. 2: DFL state auditor

The other race expected to be decided by a thin margin is the contest for the DFL state auditor candidate, where Gregory Gray is vying to become the first black person to hold a state constitutional office.

Gray, currently a state representative from Minneapolis, has campaigned on his experience, which he calls “unprecedented” for a state auditor candidate.

“I’ve done audits before and they haven’t,” Gray said of his opponents. “I have 10 years experience auditing, 12 years experience as an attorney and two years as a representative.”

Gray’s challengers are State Treasurer Carol Johnson and transportation department employee Gregg Iverson, who has unsuccessfully campaigned eight times.

Johnson said as state auditor she would make audits available online for the public to review, and she also claims her experience makes her a strong candidate.

“I have far more experience than either of them,” Johnson said of Gray and Iverson. “I have sat on the same boards as auditors in the past, and I have experience in every part of the auditor system.”

Iverson, a Vietnam and Korean War veteran, was unavailable for comment but said in his filing statement we would save taxpayer money by carefully reviewing public funds.

Gray is endorsed by the state DFL and supported by current Democratic state auditor Judi Dutcher and former state auditor and current Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, but Johnson said she could still be the DFL candidate.

“The endorsement process is just fine, but it shouldn’t be the last word on elections,” she said. “The responses we are getting back are positive, and I am very optimistic.”

All three candidates have said they are satisfied with Dutcher’s work, but each would make changes.

The state auditor oversees approximately $17 billion in annual spending by more than 4,300 local government bodies.

United they stand

In contrast to the 1998 and 2000 elections, the major parties enter the primaries with few of their high-profile races expected to be close.

Four years ago, DFL gubernatorial candidates drained their coffers in a four-way primary fight. But at the party’s May endorsement convention, Democrats were prepared to unify behind the party’s endorsed candidate.

“It’s like the delegates are on Valium,” convention co-chairman David Lillehaug said at the time. “There is a lot of unity and very little fighting. That bodes well.”

Endorsed candidate Roger Moe’s only primary challenger is Minneapolis artist Ole Savior, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998, U.S. House in 1988 and U.S. Senate in 1984, 1996 and 2000.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone received the DFL’s unanimous endorsement for a third term, although he faces two challengers in the primary.

Tim Pawlenty’s Republican endorsement for governor came after 12 rounds of voting during nearly 16 hours at the party’s convention.

But both Pawlenty and opponent Brian Sullivan had pledged to support the party’s endorsed candidate. Pawlenty faces environmentalist Leslie Davis in the GOP primary.

Norm Coleman, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate supported by the White House, will meet challenger Jack Shepard in Tuesday’s primary.

Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny, also senior fellow and co-director of the University’s Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, drew 87 percent of delegates at the party convention and is supported by Gov. Jesse Ventura against opponent Bill Dahn.

The IP’s U.S. Senate candidate, Jim Moore, received 80 percent of the delegates’ votes and faces two opponents in the primary.

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, one of the party’s leading organizers, was supported by 80 percent of the party’s delegates and faces Richard Klatte in the primary.

What primary elections do

Primary elections narrow the field of candidates running in each party and determine which candidates will represent the party in the general election.

Any eligible voter can vote in the primary election, but under Minnesota law, a person must vote for the same party’s candidates in each race.

This procedure differs from the general election, in which a voter can choose different parties’ candidates for different offices.

A person does not need to be a party member or activist to vote for that party’s candidates.


Staff reporter Libby George and The Associated Press contributed to this report.