One of the founders of the marijuana legalization movement in Minnesota says he will patrol candidates’ affiliations to one of the state’s two marijuana parties in the upcoming election.
Oliver Steinberg, chair of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party, said he will file complaints with the state against any candidate that files for office in June but who lacks any connection to the party. The push comes in response to the 2020 election, when Republican operatives recruited candidates to file for office under one of two marijuana parties — moves that likely siphoned votes away from some DFL candidates.
Steinberg said the parties were caught off guard in 2020 but won’t be this election. “We know what we’re facing, and potentially if they attempt again to encourage people fraudulently to pretend to be who they are not, I will proceed under the laws that we have by filing a complaint under fair campaign practices laws,” Steinberg said.
The claim would be that the candidates filed false affidavits of candidacy, which include a pledge that “If a major political party candidate, I either participated in the party’s most recent precinct caucuses or intend to vote for a majority of that party’s candidates at the next general election.”
Steinberg said there was evidence that eight Republicans who hadn’t attended party events and lacked any connection to the legal marijuana movement filed affidavits in 2020. Two others with a background in the movement were recruited by GOP operatives in closely divided districts, he said.
As chair, Steinberg said he would have the standing to challenge people who file as candidates for the Grassroots Legal Cannabis Party but not the other legalization party, Legal Marijuana Now (LMN). He will, he said, raise public objections to candidates who misuse that party’s label. “If we find out about it, or if that happens, we’ll certainly try to publicize it,” he said.
Steinberg called such candidates “bogus candidates” and “imposters,” but said neither party was prepared to investigate candidates who had little connection to the legalization movement.
“Neither of the legalization parties were ready for prime time. They did not have the rank and file structure,” he said. “It is an extremely popular issue that is reflected in the party names and attracts protest votes.”
Typical third parties that are driven by issues such as marijuana legalization use campaigns for office to raise awareness, not necessarily to win elections, Steinberg said.
“You test drive a controversial issue and when you get enough votes the politicians who do get elected take notice, they swipe the issue and get your reform enacted,” said Steinberg, who founded the party in 1986. “That’s how third parties have an effect on the political system.
“Now that we’ve reached that point, because of election laws, those parties are victims of their own success,” he said. When they were third or minor parties, leaders could control who ran under the banner because candidates had to move through party conventions where adequate numbers of voter signatures were collected. “Now there’s no legal way to protect or patrol the filing process,” he said. “We’ll do the best with our means and resources to be faithful to the spirit of free and fair elections.”
Steinberg isn’t on his own, however. Because they were the potential — and in at least two cases — the likely victims of misuse of the legalization party names, DFLers have introduced bills to give parties more control of their brand. House File 1863 would have authorized parties to challenge what they consider imposter candidates in court. Candidates successfully challenged would appear on the ballot without a party label.
“I think there is a challenge across the country with people using parties for their own purposes and not because they represent the party,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. “Having a major party where basically anyone can file creates some real challenges. Once you’re a major party you don’t have control.”
Steinberg’s preferred remedy would be to require all candidates — for both major and minor parties — to collect a certain number of voter signatures. Currently, only minor parties face that hurdle.
“It takes hard work to qualify by this method,” Steinberg said. “Hard work would help deter spoiler candidates, such as the Republican cheaters who invaded the legalization parties in 2020.”
A loss of control over which candidates run under the party name is a side effect of state election law and how it treats what are termed major political parties. By winning 5% of a vote for one of the five statewide elected offices in 2018, the two pro-marijuana legalization parties are considered on par with the Republicans and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties. As such, anyone can pay a filing fee, fill out an affidavit and run under the party label.
Steinberg raised objections in 2020, but it was long after candidate filing had occurred. The parties are small and not well organized. In addition, Steinberg said the pandemic made it more difficult to raise awareness.
In at least two legislative races, the spoiler candidate attracted enough votes to be the difference between a GOP victory and a DFL victory. In both cases, however, the candidates with tentative or no connection to the legal marijuana effort were endorsed by the other legalization party, Legal Marijuana Now.
“They did what was both a political and ethical mistake,” Steinberg said of those endorsements. “They endorsed people who infiltrated their party in order to help elect prohibitionists and not to advocate for reforms,” said Steinberg.
The House controlled by the DFL has passed a recreational marijuana bill but it has gained no traction in the GOP-controlled Senate. This year, Gov. Tim Walz included recreational marijuana in his legislative agenda.
Steinberg said in 2022 that the cause would be better served by DFLers running the Senate and that it was a bad strategy to let the LMN party be used to help the GOP keep the majority.