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Will requiring ‘spoiler’ candidates to jump through more hoops make Minnesota democracy more ‘elegant’?

Senate DFLers are touting their new proposal as more “elegant” than a House proposal to require 10% of the vote on a statewide ballot to achieve “major party” status.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Bonnie Westlin testifying on Tuesday in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
Bill sponsor state Sen. Bonnie Westlin testifying on Tuesday in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota Senate DFLers have come up with a new way to control which candidates can run under a political party’s banner, all in an attempt to block so-called “spoiler” candidates from running.

The only candidates who could run in major party primaries — think DFL, Republican and Legal Marijuana Now — are those who are endorsed by those parties or who gained at least 30% of the vote on any convention ballot. The exception is that candidates can still collect signatures from registered voters — 2,000 for a statewide race — and get on a major party primary ballot. The signature count drops to 1,000 for congressional races and 500 for legislative and district court judge races.

“If you don’t want to go through the endorsement process, you should still be able to access the ballot under a major party banner but we do want to give you a little bit of a hurdle to go through,” Westlin said Wednesday.

While candidates would need a certificate from the party’s chair to be allowed to file, the bill language mandates that party chairs to issue those certificates to candidates who meet the bill’s criteria. The chairs would be prohibited from giving certificates to candidates who don’t meet the thresholds in the bill.

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Senate Elections Committee Chair Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said he will amend the language of Senate File 3230 onto his elections omnibus that is up for action on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Republicans on the elections committee complained that the bill was heard late in the process and during a meeting they said was described as informational. None of the major parties testified Tuesday or issued letters of support, but the lawmaker shepherding the bill said she has been in contact with both parties.

Sen. Bonnie Westlin, DFL-Plymouth, described her idea as an alternative to another bill that is contained within the House state government and elections omnibus bill. That more controversial proposal, requested by the chairs of the state GOP and DFL, would raise the vote threshold that third parties would need to gain major party status. Rather than needing at least 5% of the vote in a statewide election as two legal marijuana parties did in 2018, they would need 10%.

It was that bill that angered current and former third parties. Among those describing it as a power play by the GOP and DFL to weaken third parties was former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who won a three-candidate general election for governor in 1998 as the nominee of the Reform Party.

“This was an attempt at a little more elegant solution to the problem we were trying to solve while at the same time absolutely embracing the notion of democracy,” Westlin said. “But we’re saying that if you want to represent to the community that you are a member of a party that holds certain values and platforms, you go through a process of vetting.”

The Westlin language would also require that endorsed party candidates be the first names listed on primary ballots, followed by those who gained access via signature gathering.

Committee member Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, said endorsed candidates should go first because they have done more work, have “checked off the most boxes.”

State Sen. Bonnie Westlin spoke with Oliver Steinberg, the founder of the Grassroots—Legalize Cannabis Party, following her testimony.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Bonnie Westlin spoke with Oliver Steinberg, the founder of the Grassroots—Legalize Cannabis Party, following her testimony.
“I like that we have put at the top the voters’ voices, the grassroots party building requirements,” Port said.  “Democracy is hard, it’s hard and messy. Voting should be easy but being a candidate is not the same. You should have to prove that you are willing to do the work, that you are engaged in your community, that you stand for the values you say you stand for.”

Proponents of both the 10 percent threshold language and the new Senate plan are trying to prevent candidates with little affiliation with a major party from running under that party’s label. In 2020, a handful of candidates with limited connection to the legal marijuana parties filed.

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They didn’t win, but DFLers have said the intent was to skim votes away from DFL candidates to help GOP candidates. The one race where that was a factor was then-incumbent Rep. Brad Tabke’s loss to GOP rival Erik Mortensen in the Shakopee-based district. The same two candidates faced off with the same legalization party candidate in 2022 with Tabke regaining the seat.

While there were accusations that many candidates running under legalization party banners in 2020 weren’t legitimate, that charge was challenged after the Legal Marijuana Now party endorsed many of them after they filed. However, one of the founders of the Grassroots Legal Cannabis party has been a critic of those endorsements and of efforts to take over the pro-legalization parties. Oliver Steinberg was one of the few third party leaders to support the idea of increasing the major party vote threshold.

Passage of the bill, Steinberg told the House Elections Committee, would mean “unprepared minor parties would be shielded from these types of fraud, treachery and sabotage.”

Under current law, minor parties have more control over who runs under their party name. They qualify candidates for the ballot by collecting signatures either at a convention or over two weeks door-to-door.

But once a party gains major party status, its primary elections are open to anyone who pays the filing fee, including candidates who lost party endorsements and even candidates who didn’t try to get the endorsement. 

In 2018, for example, former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not attend the party convention and entered the primary against endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson. While the Westlin language would have prevented then-party chair Jennifer Carnahan from certifying him to enter the GOP primary, he could have filed had his campaign collected 2,000 voter signatures.

Had the marijuana parties needed to win 10% of a statewide ballot rather than 5%, neither would have gained major party status. 

Carlson said the increase in the vote threshold for major party status from 5% to 10% “was not received as an elegant solution. So we’re looking for something that was better.” Carlson said the point is to help both parties avoid having people run who aren’t actual party advocates.

“It is a balance between giving the chairs of the parties more power and the people who show up more power,” Carlson said.

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But Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he was concerned by the use of the word “elegant.”

“The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require elegance to run our democracy,” he said. “Quite often it isn’t elegant. Oftentimes we need a bold statement, we need a bold process.”

The bill gives more power to party chairs,” Limmer said. Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said he wasn’t sure the issue of spoiler candidates is as big a problem as some DFLers and legal marijuana party advocates have said. So the bill puts the state further into party processes than it should to solve a problem that he doesn’t think is a problem, Mathews said.

There was no testimony Tuesday from party officials — major or minor. The state GOP did not respond to MinnPost’s requests for comment but DFL Chair Ken Martin said this in a statement: “We appreciate the Legislature’s work to ensure major parties in Minnesota are not taken advantage of by bad actors trying to trick voters and undermine our democratic process. We are confident that the Legislature will arrive at a just and fair solution that protects voters and makes our democracy stronger.”

Secretary of State Steve Simon said he wouldn’t weigh in on which approach the Legislature takes but said he does appreciate that while parties would receive more authority over ballot access under the Westlin amendment, it does provide a way for candidates to get around that. He cited Mark Dayton’s victory in his first run for governor in 2010 after not seeking the DFL endorsement as an example of when petitions would provide another way onto the primary ballots.

Chip Tangen, who tried to gather enough signatures a year ago to run as a Libertarian for secretary of state, said the burdens of gathering signatures — a two-week window, legal sized paper, a warning that signers would violate law if they take part in other parties’ nomination process — made it onerous.

Tangen said Tuesday he supports most of the Westlin language that eliminates the 10% threshold for major party status and the standardization of petition gathering. He said he was pleased that the bill allows signatures to be gathered on standard-sized paper. But he opposed putting in state law that petitions must be on paper. That is required now by state rules, but putting it into state law would preclude a shift to e-filing — something allowed during the pandemic.