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‘The whole thing is goofy’: Proposal to liberalize rules for minor party candidates in Minnesota would also block some major party candidates from primary ballot

Under a provision in the bills, major parties would be asked for a list of candidates that each party has approved. No approval, no placement on the primary ballot.

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Under a provision in the bills, parties would be asked at the end of the June candidate filing period for a list of candidates that have party approval. No approval, no placement on the primary ballot.
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson

Maybe it should be called the Richard Painter Bill. Or the power that no one wanted.

A set of proposals filed in the Minnesota House and Senate would give the state’s political parties the authority to block some candidates from appearing on state primary ballots with party affiliation.

House File 708 and its companion Senate bill, Senate File 752, make several changes to state law governing how candidates from both major and minor political parties get on the ballot. But a new section of law would also change the current procedure for major party filing.

Currently, anyone who wants to run as a Republican or a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate can do so without challenge. If they get more votes in the primary than other candidates with the same party identification, they move on to the general election. Think DFLer Tim Walz, who defeated the party’s endorsed candidate, Erin Murphy, in the primary before going to win the governorship in November.

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But under a provision in the bills, parties would be asked at the end of the June candidate filing period for a list of candidates that have party approval. No approval, no placement on the primary ballot. If parties don’t submit a list, all candidates who filed will be deemed to be approved.

The parties have long tried to control who can claim to be an official candidate, and this would let them keep non-endorsed candidates off the primary ballot. Yet another odd provision in the legislation might give the parties pause in using such a veto: Any candidate not approved by the party would be sent directly to the general election, where they would appear on ballots without any party identification.

Minor parties have more control over party affiliation because they qualify candidates by nominating petitions. And other aspects of the bills liberalize current rules for those minor parties, including making it easier for them to qualify candidates for legislative offices without having to compete for more expensive statewide and federal races.

But the major parties — which now include the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party — can’t control who runs under their banner. While they can block a candidate from claiming a party endorsement, they can’t keep them off the ballot or prevent them from citing a party affiliation on that ballot.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, HF708’s language is identical to that contained in Senate File 752, which is sponsored by Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, along with two other Republicans and one DFLer.

The Painter problem?

So who wants this new power? Elkins did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesman for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon gave a somewhat cryptic statement about the legislation, saying Simon thinks “election reform proposals to expand rather than restrict ballot access are worthy of discussion.”

But is he for it or against it? No response.

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A spokeswoman for state GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said the party had no comment, while state DFL Chair Ken Martin was surprised when he heard about the ballot access veto.

“The whole thing is goofy,” Martin said when told of the provision. “You could make an argument that it would strengthen the hand of the party, to give strength to their endorsement process, that if you’re not endorsed you’re not allowed to run in the DFL primary. But that sounds unconstitutional.”

As to the notion that all of the non-party-blessed candidates would move directly to the general election, Martin said that is, in fact, the opposite of what the party would want. “You don’t want a 50-person ballot in November,” Martin said. “The fact that I don’t know about it will tell you that this isn’t coming from anyone with any stature. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin

Political parties have long wanted to protect the party “trademark” and there have been instances where candidates that don’t share party principals or who seek to do mischief attract complaints and even litigation. In Minnesota, parties frequently require candidates to promise that they will not file for the office if they don’t win endorsements at party conventions. Often, however, candidates make no such pledge and file regardless of endorsement. And often they win.

Just last election, both Walz and Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty filed under party titles even though other candidates were endorsed — Murphy by the DFL and Jeff Johnson by the GOP. Would Walz and Pawlenty really have been blocked by party officials from appearing on the primary ballot? Would the rank and file try to pressure party leaders to do so?

The most notable party-affiliation feud occurred in the midst of last year’s DFL contest for the U.S. Senate. Appointed U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was the choice of the party at the state convention in Rochester but one-time Republican Richard Painter also sought the endorsement and filed for the office in June. DFL Chair Martin dubbed Painter a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” after Painter balked at declaring himself a Democrat during an interview.

But Martin said Wednesday the last thing the DFL would have wanted was for Painter to reach the general election ballot with Smith and GOP nominee Karin Housley. Painter tallied 14 percent of the DFL primary vote and could have taken votes from Smith with his appeals to parts of the party’s environmentalist base.

“You’d probably have Karin Housley in the (U.S.) Senate,” had Painter been on the general election ballot, Martin said.

‘Access to the ballpark’

It appears the veto language was part of model legislation produced by the Libertarian Party of Minnesota five years ago and endorsed by the Independence and Green parties. But again, most of that language relates to helping minor party candidates reach the ballot, not keeping major party candidates off it. 

The changes requested by the minor parties range from letting them gather signatures on standard business-sized paper rather than 8.5-by-14-inch paper to letting them collect signatures from any voter, even if they have taken part in DFL or GOP elections. It would also let them concentrate on getting candidates on the ballot for smaller offices like state Legislature without first having to qualify candidates for office like president, governor or U.S. Senate.

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When asked about the veto language, Libertarian Party Chair Chris Holbrook said, “We welcome any amendments.” The Libertarians have scheduled a press conference Thursday in St. Paul with its national committee chair, Nicholas Sarwark, to support the provisions aimed at helping minor parties.

“I don’t know why any elected official would decline to talk about creating a level playing field — or at the very least, talk about allowing access to the ballpark,” said Holbrook in a statement.

“The bottom line is that voters whose views happen to align with those of minor parties are essentially being gagged, and that is just not Minnesotan. We can and must do better,”  said Matt Kowalski, the Libertarian party’s executive director. “But the good news is that every time our coalition has met with an elected official about this, we have found they agree.”