When Jesse Ventura speaks at the Minnesota State Capitol, people listen. And it is only partly due to the fact that he often speaks very loudly.
The former one-term governor remains a celebrity in state politics, and his appearances can draw crowds and attention. Such was the case earlier this month when he testified on an issue at the core of his political persona. Senate File 1827 would make it much harder — some say impossible — for a third party to achieve “major party status.”
Major party status means the party can automatically qualify its primary election winner for the general election, whereas minor parties must follow a process of signature gathering to place candidates on the ballot. Under current law, when a candidate from a minor party wins 5% of a statewide vote, that party achieves major party status and enjoys the benefits for the next two years.
But the bill brought by House and Senate DFL sponsors and supported by the chairs of both the state DFL and Republican parties would increase the vote threshold to win major party status from 5% to 10%.
During fiery testimony before the Senate Elections Committee, Ventura blasted the major parties and accused them of trying to stifle other viewpoints.
“If these rules had been in place back in 1998, the state of Minnesota would not have had a chance to elect Gov. Jesse Ventura,” he said. “I’m sure that pleases both of the parties because I believe that is why this is being done, so there can never be another Gov. Jesse Ventura. The people of Minnesota won’t be able to ‘shock the world’ again.”
Ventura in 1998 ran on the Reform Party ticket, a party that had gained major party status in the 1996 election when Dean Barkley won 6.98% of the vote as a candidate for U.S. Senate. During that same election, however, Ross Perot won 11.75% as the Reform Party candidate for president, so it would have had major party status by 1998 even under a 10% threshold.
Still, his plurality victory over GOP nominee Norm Coleman and DFL nominee Hubert “Skip” Humphrey was a surprise, one that Ventura said on election night would shock the world.
Sponsors of the 10% bill point to recent struggles that the two most recent major parties — the Legal Marijuana Now Party and Grassroots Legal Cannabis Party — have had with their new status. As minor parties, party offices and active members have control over which candidates run under the party name. They lose that control when they become major parties when anyone with money for a filing fee can enter the party primary.
In 2020, the DFL and some in the legalization parties complained that candidates with GOP leanings filed as legalization candidates to skim votes from DFL nominees. In at least one case, the defeat of once and future incumbent Rep. Brad Tabke was blamed on a questionable legalization candidate. (Tabke ran again in 2022 and won his seat back.)
In 2021, a bill with DFL sponsorship would have given a major party a legal path to challenge in court any “insincere” candidates. It went nowhere. In 2022, DFL and legal marijuana advocates launched efforts to convince legalization voters to support DFLers — rather than legalization party candidates — as the best way to pass recreational marijuana.
Now comes SF1827 and its House counterpart, House File 2802.
“It makes it much more difficult to do what’s called spoilers, to put spoilers on the ballot,” said Senate Elections Committee chair and bill sponsor Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan. “There’s been a lot of mischief around the state, and it’s been more than one party.” House Sponsor, Rep. Luke Frederick, DFL-Mankato, called what happened with the questionable marijuana legalization candidates “shenanigans.”
The chairs of both the DFL and GOP parties submitted letters of support.
“Certain organizations granted major party status lacked the structure to adequately vet or endorse candidates under their banner,” wrote DFL chair Ken Martin. “Candidates have been able to take advantage of streamlined ballot access even though they made no effort to raise funds or build campaign organizations.”
GOP chair David Hann said making it harder to be considered a major party under state law “will save taxpayer time and resources, minimize voter confusion, and improve administration of our state’s elections.” Hann also said because all major parties receive money via the state’s public financing of campaigns, “a higher threshold will help improve stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
In 2022, according to the state Campaign Finance Board, Legal Marijuana Now party candidates received just under $29,000 in public subsidy payments. The state GOP received $1.2 million for its candidates, and the state DFL received $1.1 million.
Both chairs said minor parties could still gain access to the ballot through nominating petitions with signatures totalling 1% of the vote in the last election for that office.
Secretary of State Steve Simon has not taken a position on the bill.
Oliver Steinberg, one of the founders of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party, supported the bill, saying the two legalization parties were “not ready for prime time” and were hijacked by mischief makers who had no connection to the marijuana legalization movement. Passage of the bill, he said, would mean “unprepared minor parties would be shielded from these types of fraud, treachery and sabotage.” He said he wished the bill would give the parties legal means to challenge candidates who file for office with affidavits that declare they have taken part in the party’s activities and will vote for their candidates.
Grassroots Legalize Cannabis failed to meet the 5% threshold at the 2020 and 2022 elections and is no longer treated as a major party. Legal Marijuana Now, however, retains that status due to winning 5.9% of the vote in the 2020 U.S. Senate general election.
Other minor party members were much less enthused with the 10% bill.
“I hope you guys are all proud of yourselves for putting this forth,” former Libertarian Party candidate Chris Holbrook told the House Elections Committee. “I’m assuming that’s why you all ran for office, to use the power of law to ban your opponents from running for office.”
Of the concerns about the candidates who ran under the legalization parties, Holbrook said, “it’s pretty easy to get rid of the marijuana parties. Just legalize marijuana.” Libertarians, who have never gained major party status in Minnesota but have done so at one time or another in 44 states, still have a hard time qualifying candidates for the ballot under minor party rules he called “onerous.”
Chip Tangen said he attempted to run for secretary of state as a Libertarian but failed because, unlike what Martin described as the need for a “nominal” number of signatures, it is difficult.
“There are 201 seats in the state Legislature,” he told the House committee. “Since the year 2000, a total of 12 Libertarians have managed to claw their way onto the ballot through petitioning.” Parties must collect signatures in a two-week window in the spring, they must use legal-sized pages and signers must ink a pledge that says they will not take part in any other party’s process.
Cara Schulz, a Burnsville City Council member, suggested letting minor parties have conventions and then be allowed to place their nominated candidates on the general election ballot. But bills to reduce the odds of them making major party status were a means of killing competition.
“If you want to abuse your power to keep your power, just push this bill forward,” she said. And Phil Fuehrer, the chair of the Independence Party, said the bill is being pushed with anecdotes without acknowledging how difficult it is to reach 5% of the general election vote. Since 2002, he said, 101 candidates have run from 20 third parties, and just three have achieved major party status.
Richard Winger is a writer who follows election law nationally, especially how it treats access to the ballot for third parties. He said that while Minnesota is one of 21 states that makes a legal distinction between major and minor parties, other states allow third parties on the ballot without petitioning like Minnesota does.
“Minor parties cannot thrive in a system in which all of their nominees have to file difficult petitions,” Winger told the Senate committee. “And Minnesota’s petitions for independent candidates are miserable.” Winger also responded to sponsors’ claims that a 10% vote threshold is comparable to other states. Only two states match that total — Virginia and New Jersey — and only one is higher with Alabama’s 20%.
“Minnesota is already one of the most difficult states in the union,” Winger wrote in response to an email. “The Minnesota vote test for being a qualified party is 5%, but the median vote test in the 50 states is only 2%. As one of the Libertarian witnesses said, the Libertarian Party at one time or another has been a qualified party in 44 states, but never Minnesota. So already Minnesota is unusually difficult.”
The House committee held the bill for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. The Senate bill was approved by the elections committee on a party line vote.
“You might have seen the letters (from the two party chairs) and thought this was a unified agreement that we came in with ahead of time,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton. “That is not the case.”