Joe Mansky, Ramsey
County Elections Manager
An Interview with
The Civic Caucus
8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
Notes of the
Johnson, chair; David Broden, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson,
Lucas Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz (phone), Joe Mansky, Tim
McDonald, Wayne Popham (phone), and Clarence Shallbetter
Introduction of interviewee:
and Paul welcomed and introduced Joe Mansky,
County elections manager. Mansky, a former member of the Civic Caucus
interview team, has been the Ramsey County elections manager since 2002.
Prior to coming to Ramsey County, he was the manager of Governor Jesse
Ventura's redistricting commission. He also was a staff member for the
secretary of state from 1984 to 1999, serving the last 11 years as state
currently serves on the Governor's Task Force on Election Integrity and is
a member of the Pew Foundation Committee on Election Performance
Measurement. He served on the Federal Election Commission election
advisory panel from 1998 to 2002. He has been a faculty member for
election law seminars conducted by the Minnesota Institute for Legal
Education, the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Ramsey County Bar
Association and the University of Minnesota since 1990.
primary elections, not general elections, are the decisive elections in
determining the make-up of the Minnesota Legislature, despite very low
voter turnout in primaries, says Joe Mansky.
legislative districts where the primary outcome is tantamount to election,
legislators have little incentive to respond other than to their more
narrow constituencies, he said.
improve the competitiveness of legislative elections, Mansky recommends
allowing only the top two primary vote recipients, regardless of party, to
advance to the general election, or using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) to
select party nominees in the primary. To make voting more
accessible, Mansky suggests opening the polls for more days, establishing
more centralized voting centers, letting people vote at locations other
than their own precinct, and making it easier to vote from home.
Background and discussion
was invited to meet with the Civic Caucus in advance of Minnesota's
upcoming primary election on Tuesday, August 14, and in light of a largely
downward trends in voter turnout in
primary elections over the last 50-plus years. Since 1950, the highest
turnout in a primary was 39.2 percent of eligible voters, in 1966. The
lowest, 7.7 percent, was in 2004. In 2010, the turnout was 16.0 percent.
Ironically, Minnesota consistently has been among the top states in the
nation in voter turnout at general elections.
Minnesota primary elections voters are not required to identify their
allegiance, or lack thereof, to any political party. To that extent the
primary election is an open election. However, voters can't split their
primary ballot by voting for some candidates in one party and some in
another. They must choose one partisan ballot from among the parties'
ballots and vote only for those candidates on the ballot so selected.
Mansky's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
Despite low voter turnout, in most races the outcome of Minnesota primary
is more important than the general election--Because
of non-competitive districts the primary result is tantamount to final
election for approximately two-thirds of
Minnesota's 201 legislators, or about 134 races, Mansky said. It's
difficult to create competitive districts in large parts of the state,
Mansky said. Redistricting plans tend to respect community boundaries, and
often voters with similar political leanings live in the same community.
Primary elections tend to attract mainly the party faithful--Members
of the wider general public--embracing neither the left or the right--
have largely abandoned the primary election, Mansky said, leaving the
decisions to voters supporting more extreme political or special interest
Intra-party primary contests in non-competitive districts usually favor
candidates closer to either end of the political spectrum--In
primaries, where candidates from the same party run against one another to
become the nominee for the general election, Mansky said the more liberal
(in DFL contests) or more conservative (Republican contests) candidates
invariably prevail. Mansky said he could recall very few seriously
contested primary legislative races in
Minnesota in the last 20 years in either major party where a more moderate
candidate won a primary battle. In this year's primary Mansky said it is
possible that some moderate incumbents will be unseated.
Legislators from districts where the primary is decisive have little
incentive to respond other than to more narrow constituencies--In
situations where the primary, not the general election, determines the
outcome, the general election no longer has value, Mansky said.
Consequently, legislators from such districts have no necessary allegiance
to any broad group but the political or special interest constituency that
brought them through the primary. It's sometimes difficult to work with
legislators in that situation, Mansky said, because of the absence of a
feeling of accountability to a broader spectrum of voters. Legislators
from such districts can make it difficult for majority and minority
leaders in the House and Senate to get support for consensus on
contentious issues, he said.
Gaining attention for change in the primary process is extremely difficult--Political
leaders fear change in the status quo, Mansky said. Political parties
don't welcome an increase in the number of competitive districts, because
of the threat of losing more elections and because campaign contributions
would need to be spread more broadly.
Several possibilities for change are apparent:
* Enable only the two top vote-getters in the primary,
regardless of party, to advance to the general election--Such
an approach was implemented in
California this year, Mansky said. The current
primary election--possibly more appropriately named a party nominee
election--would become a true primary election, with one ballot for all
candidates for an office, not separate party ballots, as at present. The
two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party identification,
would square off in the general election. State law would accomplish such
a change, he said. A constitutional amendment would not be required.
immediate effect would be to increase the significance of the general
election, where vastly more voters participate, and diminish the
significance of the primary. In a district with substantial numbers of
voters from both major parties, a Democrat and a Republican would likely
meet in the general election. Or perhaps a third-party candidate would
survive. Where one party is dominant, two persons from the same party
would likely face off in the general election.
Candidates would have incentive to seek support from broader
constituencies, thereby reducing the influence of a narrow political or
special interest base.
* Use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)--Mansky said RCV, in
which voters rank candidates in order of preference, is much more
appealing to him for a primary election than in the general election. With
RCV the separate party primary ballots would continue. But RCV would be
used to arrive at the party nominee. It is much more appropriate to rank
candidates of the same party in order of preference because such
candidates are likely to be much closer in political philosophy, Mansky
said. By contrast in the general election differences in political
philosophy are likely to be much sharper, making it more difficult for
voters to rank the candidates, he said.
* Move to multiple candidate endorsements by political
parties--Now political parties endorse one candidate for each office.
When many candidates with similar qualifications seek the same office,
party conventions could endorse multiple candidates and let the primary
process make the final selection. No change in state law is required.
* Allow write-in votes in the primary election--Under
current law, voters are allowed write-in votes in Minnesota general
elections but not in primaries. Responding to a question, Mansky said that
allowing write-in votes in the primary seems reasonable.
* Change the date of the primary election--Before 2010,
the primary election in
occurred after Labor Day. The Governor and Legislature shifted the date to
early August to make it easier to receive absentee ballots from members of
the armed forces stationed in foreign countries. Mansky believes the
September date could be reinstated. He believes problems with receiving
absentee ballots on time can be solved without having an August primary, a
time when many people's minds are more on vacation plans than on politics.
* Open polls for several days and evenings--Mansky said
polls should be open both days and evenings from Saturday through Tuesday,
not just on Tuesday, the traditional election day in Minnesota. Such a
process would accommodate people whose work and family schedules make it
difficult to vote only on Tuesday and enable voters to cast their ballot
at a time and place of their choosing.
* Create accessible "voting centers"; don't require everyone
to vote at their home precincts--Voters, regardless of residence,
should be allowed to vote at any approved voting location, Mansky said.
Technology today makes it possible for ballots appropriate to the voter's
residence to be made available almost instantly throughout the state. Thus
work sites, major shopping centers, entertainment locations, and other
sites attracting thousands of individuals, could serve as voting centers,
* Broaden the "legality" for voters in requesting absentee
now are allowed to vote early, via absentee ballot, provided they specify
a reason why they can't vote on election day. Applicants for absentee
ballots technically are in violation of the law--a felony--if they falsely
state, for example, they'll be out of town on election day, Mansky said.
* Allow voting by mail or online--In discussion Mansky
said that the existence of a verifiable paper ballot is essential. A
participant questioned whether it is really possible to guard against
fraud with online voting, with the potential presence of hackers who could
destroy the legitimacy of the online ballot. Others noted that the
integrity of voting can be protected to the same extent that other
functions which require security, such as online banking, can be
* Don't require people to vote--Responding to a question,
Mansky said he strongly believes systems such as are used in Australia,
where people are required to vote or pay a penalty, should not be
considered here. Whether or not to vote is a basic right that individuals
Changes in the primary election would affect other state offices--If
changes as discussed above were made in the primary election , other state
offices, including electing U. S. Senators, U. S. House members, the
Governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretary of state,
would be affected.
the voting problem even more fundamental?--A
participant suggested that even the best data on voter turnout usually
leaves out about one-half the population. The participant wondered whether
large segments of the population, perhaps even younger persons, are
choosing simply to drop out of the political process, lacking confidence
in the political system, or feeling that special interests have too much
power and, as private citizens they have no ability to have an impact.
response Mansky replied that the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v.
Wade (abortion) had the effect of changing the composition of the two
larger major political parties. Prior to the date of that decision, 1973,
it wasn't uncommon to have a broad spectrum of conservatives and liberals
in both major parties. In years since then conservatives no longer have
felt welcome in the Democratic Party and liberals no longer have felt
welcome in the Republican Party, Mansky said.
said other data show that the Democratic Party has become more a party of
higher-income professionals and well-educated individuals and the
Republican Party has now embraced more blue collar voters, almost a
180-degree turn from the past.
behalf of the Civic Caucus, Verne thanked Mansky for meeting with us