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With memories of the 2020 election, DFLers wrestle with how to keep ‘imposter candidates’ off the ballot

During the 2020 election, some of the candidates who filed under the banner of Minnesota’s marijuana legalization parties had tenuous — or nonexistent — connections to the parties or the cause of legalization.

Official ballot
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
HF 1863 would give Minnesota’s major parties a legal way to prevent what DFL Party Chair Ken Martin dubs “imposter” candidates appearing on the ballot with a party’s label.
Two years ago, a bipartisan group of Minnesota legislators introduced legislation to help minor political parties, containing what they thought was a bonus for the big parties: a veto over which candidates could use a party’s label on the ballot.

At the time, state DFL Party Chair Ken Martin called the provision “goofy” and wanted no part of it.

Now, however, Martin supports the concept — if not the details — of a bill, HF 1863, that would give Minnesota’s major parties a legal way to prevent what he dubs “imposter” candidates to appear on the ballot with a party’s label. Sponsored by Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill passed out to the House State Government Committee this week.

It comes just months after an election that saw candidates run under the banner of two marijuana parties who might have had little to do with those parties — and who might have cost at least one DFL candidate reelection.

A way to block candidates from using a party’s name

Long’s bill is less broad than the bills introduced in 2019, but has some similarities in that it would give Minnesota’s major political parties — the Republican Party, the DFL Party, The Grassroots Legal Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party — a way to block certain candidates from using their party name, namely by asking a court to rule that a candidate cannot appear on the ballot with the party’s name. 

The candidate would be required to appear in court and show why he or she is entitled to use the party label. Having been endorsed by that party or having been involved in the governance of that party would be considered proof, but would not be the only evidence allowed. Even if the party were successful in blocking the candidate, however, the candidates would still be allowed on the ballot, just without a party name. The new bill language is in the same section of state law that allows the challenging of candidates who might not live in the district or might not be registered to vote.

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The timing of the remedy is where Martin has concerns. Long said he envisions the provision being used only after a questionable candidate wins a party primary. That could result in a party being able to block the use of the party name by a so-called imposter, but it would also mean the general election ballot for that office would not have a candidate from their party.

State Rep. Jamie Long
Asked why the bill wouldn’t allow parties to intervene before the primary, Long said: “In my mind, that would be more of a threat and would be giving too much power to the parties over who could or could not be a member. This is a softer touch, by saying a party could control its own brand, which is state law already.”

Before the House State Government Committee approved the bill, Long said it was meant to keep candidates from using the name of a party they don’t believe in. “We’ve seen in our state perennial candidates run under multiple party banners with the goal of garnering attention often to the embarrassment of the party they chose,” Long said. “This bill allows parties more control over their existing legal right to exclusive use of their party name to help them protect their brand.”

‘Impractical and unworkable’

DFL head Martin said he supports the concept but maybe not the language of the current bill, at least as described by Long. He said he would want to be able to challenge a candidate’s alliance with a party after the candidate is certified for the primary ballot but before primary ballots are printed. That’s what he thought Long’s bill would do. “No party should be without recourse if a candidate who does not subscribe to their values or their party platform — is essentially an imposter candidate,” Martin said.

He said it would keep one party from hijacking another party by running their candidates under the opposing party’s banner.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
Oliver Steinberg, the founder of the Grassroots Legal Cannabis Party but not currently a spokesperson for the party, said he thinks there should be a remedy for parties to control who runs under their banner. He said GOP-connected “bogus candidates” filed as cannabis legalization candidates in 2020 under false claims that they were adherents to those parties. “When people don’t play by the rules, when they lie and cheat, there should be a remedy,” Steinberg said. Yet he called the Long approach “impractical and unworkable. It doesn’t get to the problem we actually have, which is people filing false affidavits.”

His solution would be to require all candidates — not just those from minor parties — to collect signatures to show some support. That’s a change currently in a bill filed by Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, that also contains measures to liberalize minor party ballot access rules as well as a requirement that candidates certify to elections officials whether they have been endorsed by the party label they are running under.

Attempts to reach the state Republican Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party were not successful.

House Republicans oppose

Republicans on the State Government Committee opposed Long’s bill. “I understand the intent and I think we all have concern about protecting our brand,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch. But the bill lacked specifics as to how a party would prove that a candidate was co-opting the party name, she said: “It’s incredibly subjective, which also seems dangerous. This is sort of a party boss bill where chairs of parties can have a lot of discretion here.”

State Rep. Anne Nue Brindley
State Rep. Anne Nue Brindley
Minnesota does not have party registration for voters, but Long said the evidence of being an imposter candidate could include a lack of any activity in the party, recent membership of another political party, or making statements inconsistent with a party’s beliefs.

Rep. Duane Quam, R-Bryon, said that could preclude candidates who don’t become active until they run or who made honest changes in party affiliations.

The bills attempting to address the issue in 2019 — sponsored by then-Sen. Scott Jenson, R-Chaska, and Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington — would have required the secretary of state to send a list to each party containing the names of candidates who filed under each party’s banner. The state parties could then nix any candidates they didn’t think were legitimate. Such candidates would then be advanced to the general election without facing primary voters but would appear without party label. The sponsors amended their bills, which were primarily aimed at liberalizing minor party rules, to remove the major party veto. Still, neither bill moved very far.

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Reacting to 2020 election results

The 2020 election is still fresh in mind for many in the Legislature after a handful of the candidates who filed under one of the two marijuana legalization parties had tenuous — or nonexistent — connections to the parties or the cause of legalization. There was evidence in several cases that some candidates had ties to the GOP and were encouraged to run to take votes away from DFL candidates. In at least one case, in House District 55A, DFL incumbent Rep. Brad Tabke lost to GOP candidate Erik Mortensen by 554 votes, while the Legal Marijuana Now candidate, Ryan Martin, took 1,706 votes.

Tabke had defeated Mortensen by 602 votes in 2018. But while Martin’s ties to the GOP were stronger than to the LMN party, he wouldn’t have run afoul of the measure proposed by Long, since he’d been endorsed by the LMN party — as were several other candidates whose bona fides had been questioned by the DFL.

State Sen. Dan Sparks
Former state Sen. Dan Sparks
In the Austin area, incumbent DFL Sen. Dan Sparks lost to GOP challenger Gene Dornink by less than the number of votes taken by Legal Marijuana Now candidate Tyler Becvar, who had strong connections to the GOP. But again, Becvar was ultimately endorsed by the LMN.

Under Long’s bill, only the party listed by a candidate would have legal standing to challenge them. So Tabke, Sparks or the DFL could not have asked a court to intervene in any of those cases; the provision would also only come into play after the primary. 

But another bill, SF 1268, would be more focused on the temptation to recruit candidates for the new legalization parties that are specifically intended to siphon votes from the DFL. Sponsored by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Audubon, the bill would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot asking voters to require winners to have at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast in a general election. That bill doesn’t say what would happen if the top vote getter fell below a majority, but in other states with such systems, the top-two candidates go to a runoff election.

Both Tabke and Sparks would have had new life had such a system been in place, though new Sen. Aric Putnam, DFL- St. Cloud, would not have won outright in Senate District 14,  where he defeated incumbent GOP candidate Jerry Relph, who died from COVID-19 in December. 

Three races for federal offices would have also faced runoffs had this been in effect in 2020. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith won with 48.75 percent of the vote, 1st District U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn won with 48.6 percent of the vote and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Angie Craig won with 48.2 percent of the vote.