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‘Goofy’ proposal for giving Minnesota’s major parties veto power over primary candidates gets a rewrite

After seeing that the parties could use the authority outlined in the bills to veto mainstream candidates, the bills’ chief sponsor in the state Senate said he reconsidered.

Libertarian Party Chair Chris Holbrook speaks at a press conference introducing the ballot access measure while bill sponsors, from left, Rep. Steve Elkins and Sen. Scott Jensen, look on.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Backers of legislation to liberalize Minnesota’s rule for minor political parties thought they had something in the bills to attract the support of the major parties.

They were wrong.

A MinnPost article on two companion bills, House File 708 and Senate File 752, outlined a provision that would give state Republicans and DFLers a veto over which candidates could run in the state primary under their banner. Rather than interest the parties, it attracted opposition, at least from DFL Chair Ken Martin, who called the idea “goofy” and perhaps unconstitutional.

State Sen. Scott Jensen, a Republican from Chaska, said he also heard from Senate colleagues who called the section of the bill “klutzy.”

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“I’m gonna guess that what we’re gonna do is excise that entire section,” Jensen said, “because that’s not really the heart of the bill.” The heart is to make it easier for minor parties to get candidates on the ballot by lowering signature requirements, allow them to seek lower office like state House and Senate without first having to run statewide races, and even to let them gather signatures on 8½-by-11 paper instead of 14 inches, as current law requires.

In a comment posted on the original MinnPost article last week, House sponsor Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, wrote: “I’ll have an amendment drafted before the bill is heard. This is certainly not the intent.”

Jensen said he was surprised at Martin’s opposition. “What we were trying to get at there was a way for us to potentially recruit some major party support,” Jensen said, citing a situation last election when an incarcerated felon named Leonard Richards filed to run against Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the DFL primary. Richards, a convicted murderer, would have been barred by state law from running while in prison, but federal law has no such restriction.

“That sort of drives the major parties crazy that they can’t control that,” Jensen said. When backers of the bill sought by minor parties such as the Libertarians, Independence and Green parties met with Secretary of State Steve Simon, he told them the provision could bring the GOP and DFL along to support the measure, Jensen said.

But after seeing that the parties could also use that legal authority to veto more mainstream candidates such as Richard Painter, who challenged U.S. Sen. Tina Smith last year, or even candidates who had failed to win party endorsements, such as Tim Walz and Tim Pawlenty, Jensen said he reconsidered.

“I see that the unintended consequence is that we would go too far and we’d end up allowing the major parties be too controlling,” Jensen said. And he doesn’t want that section to lead people to oppose the bill who otherwise might favor the sections helping minor parties get before voters.

The state’s current rules, the minor party leaders said last week, are some of the nation’s most onerous.

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There was one significant disincentive that might give the big parties pause in using their veto. Any candidate that files who doesn’t get a party stamp of approval would move directly to the general election ballot. That means that rather than having Painter challenging Smith in a primary but eventually losing, he would be on the general election ballot taking votes she might have needed to defeat GOP challenger Karin Housley.

“You don’t want a 50-person ballot in November,” Martin said.

State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan also dismissed the party veto provision: “While this bill does not seem to have the necessary support to move forward, we do not intend to exercise any power to play in the primary election or bypass the will of Minnesota voters who make their voices heard by voting in a primary.”