Earlier this month, when the executive board of the Republican Party of Minnesota met at its Edina headquarters to decide the fate of then-Chair Jennifer Carnahan, reporters and some onlookers had to wait outside to learn what had happened.
The scene raised a couple of questions: Why was the meeting held in private? And why does anybody care about the outcome?
The answer to the second question is easy: There was a lot of interest — at least among insiders and political players — in how a scandal would impact Carnahan, Minnesota Republican politicians and state politics in general.
But addressing the first question is more complicated: The state GOP is a private organization, in some ways not unlike a service club or a chamber of commerce, and is not subject to state open meeting laws. And yet, this particular private group is intertwined in state election and campaign-finance laws in unique ways. In exchange for more regulation by the state, the parties get certain protections and permissions that other service clubs — and even other influential political players — do not.
“We don’t regulate the Kiwanis Club; the state has no say in when their meetings are,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who administers state elections. “Why political parties? They do have this sort of hybrid status. They are private organizations but the people of Minnesota have a democratic interest in basic questions around parties.”
Special status under the law
By law, political parties in Minnesota must abide by certain rules: They must have a chair and a treasurer; they must hold state and local conventions at times prescribed by the state; and they must follow state rules if they want to change their official name.
At the same time, they also enjoy unique benefits: they have higher contribution and donation limits than other organizations; they get money directly from taxpayers; and they benefit from bans on holding public meetings that conflict with precinct caucuses and primaries. They can also use state law to force employers to allow delegates to attend conventions and block unauthorized uses of the party name.
A recent controversy illustrated this special status. After Minnesota passed a law creating a 2020 presidential primary, the Legislature decided certain government data — in this case, the names of voters who took part in each party’s presidential primary — would be given only to those private entities, not the public.
That Simon and local elections officials would oversee primary elections makes sense, since they are official elections that often include nonpartisan as well as partisan offices. But state law also regulates precinct caucuses, which are strictly party functions. Party chairs and parties have “this special status” in election law, he said.
Government interest in regulating party processes, including how they nominate candidates, goes back at least as far as 1944, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Smith v. Allwright, said that the Texas Democratic Party’s exclusion of Black voters in “all-white” primaries was unconstitutional, a decision that came well before the voting rights acts of the 1960s. “In the law, there’s this idea that political party functions have a public interest in them,” said Simon.
Among states, Minnesota is neither the most nor least deferential to political parties. Massachusetts, for example, lets parties decide at their conventions which candidates appear on the general election ballot, and many states require voters to state their political party when they register to vote and make it a public record. Yet other states, especially those in the West, pay little attention to which candidates are endorsed by which party.
Minnesota does not have party registration. And while party endorsements can be influential, they don’t decide which candidates advance to the general election. The last two governors — Mark Dayton and Tim Walz — won DFL primaries despite losing endorsement battles.
“We’re in the middle of the road in a lot of things. We’re from the Midwest. We tend to be like that,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who chairs the state Senate committee that oversees election law and who served as secretary of state from 1999 to 2007.
Kiffmeyer said she sees political parties as serving important functions in a democracy — both official and unofficial — and therefore deserving of the unique status they get in state law. They run precinct caucuses, provide election judges and present the candidates that will appear on the presidential primary ballot, she said.
Historically, new rules and regulations of parties were passed “because somebody made it difficult for somebody to exercise their ability to take part. Most of the time there was a problem somewhere and they went to their legislator who got it into statute.”
Unofficially, parties recruit, train and sometimes fund candidates. “Somebody needs to get people on the ballot. People don’t just magically appear on the ballot,” she said, adding that it is difficult for people without help to run.
Kiffmeyer said she fears that too many people think political parties are sinister or anti-democratic when, constitutionally, parties are protected under the First Amendment, which protects not just speech but the rights of Americans to peacefully assemble and “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“Nobody should be treated badly because they’re involved in free associations,” she said. “It’s one of the good things about our country.”
Does anybody care?
Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, a voting rights lawyer who was a leading advocate of the DFL elections bills this year, said that parties can be a counterforce to much-less transparent political actors such as political action committees and dark money funders. “Parties build the infrastructure in recruiting, supporting candidates and getting volunteers and activists to work together,” Greenman said. “Having strong, transparent, accountable political parties is really important, particularly for voters.
“When we think of the other political actors in our system, more and more they are not transparent,” she said. “They are outside accountability to voters, candidates and activists.”
And while Greenman thinks parties are important, she said it’s more important that people know who their congressperson is than who chairs state political parties.
Good thing, then, that most people have no idea who chairs the parties — or much care, said Paul Goren, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “The party chair is inside baseball,” Goren said. “The experts care. The people who want Ms. Carnahan’s job care. Family members care. Republican elites who fear scandal might damage their chances in upcoming elections care. But most people in the public have no idea who Jennifer Carnahan or who any state party chair is.”
In political surveys Goren has conducted, he sometimes asks the public to identify well-known public officials. Only 20-to-25 percent know that John Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “So 75 percent don’t know who one of the most-visible and high-profile government officials out there is,” Goren said.
The numbers go even lower when people are asked about state and locally elected officials. He said he would be “surprised” if 1 percent of Minnesotans knew who Jennifer Carnahan is.“That’s not a slight on Jennifer Carnahan,” he said. “This kind of information just doesn’t penetrate to the general public.”
At the same time, Goren said, he doesn’t think there will be much recollection among voters of the circumstances that led to her resignation, the arrest of a major GOP donor and personal friend of Carnahan’s on state and federal sex trafficking charges.
‘Necessary and part of the process’
Jeff Sigurdson, the executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, oversees the regulation of campaign finance law, which includes dozens of carve outs and benefits for political parties. There are also public subsidies of political party units via the political contribution refund program as well as allotments to campaigns and parties that agree to certain fundraising and spending limits.
The state also facilitates contributions. It collects money from a $5 per taxpayer checkoff on income and property tax forms. And while the majority of that money goes to candidates in the direct public subsidy program, 10 percent goes directly to parties selected by taxpayers, an amount that comes out to around $70,000 a year.
Participation by taxpayers had been dropping; now just 4 percent to 5 percent of taxpayers check the boxes. But around $1 million per election is added to the fund by direct appropriation from the state general fund.
The state also allows taxpayers to get up to a $50 refund for contributions to candidates and parties. In 2019, the amounts refunded ranged from $43.99 for one donation to the 7th Congressional District Republican Party to $551,247 for the 8,906 donations to the state DFL Central Committee.
Party units also have larger donation limits than other political givers. They can give $40,000 to a candidate for governor, for example, which is 10 times what other donors can give.
Why are parties treated differently, better even? “Extending the political contribution refund program to the parties is a way of trying to support parties,” Sigurdson said. “Why would you do that if you didn’t think parties were necessary and part of the process?”