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What does Minnesota’s Legal Marijuana Now Party do … now?

The Legal Marijuana Now Party plans to evolve, but a new state law makes it more difficult for political parties to gain major party status.

Minnesota Legal Marijuana Now Party members rallying at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 20, 2016.
Minnesota Legal Marijuana Now Party members rallying at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 20, 2016.
Wikimedia Commons/Dan Vacek

With its founding principle accomplished and new hurdles thrown in its way by the Legislature, now might seem like a good time for Minnesota’s remaining marijuana legalization party to call it quits. 

“No doubt about it, the marijuana issue, as the name would suggest, was the original issue that the party was focused on,” said Legal Marijuana Now Party spokesperson Kevin O’Connor of the new legalization law Gov. Tim Walz plans to sign on Tuesday.

But O’Connor and the party have other plans.

“Now, as with many other political parties in the past, it evolves. It becomes something more than just the original goal. That’s the phase that we’re in now as a political party,” said O’Connor, whose 5.92% of the 2020 U.S. Senate vote retained the party’s major party status. The new law passed by the Legislature this year jumps that qualifying threshold to 8%.

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What could change? The party’s name. 

“It certainly would allow us to expand our reach to the independent market from the marijuana market which is going to be viewed as a done deal. ‘What do we need you for now?’” O’Connor said of a name change. Most of the party’s cannabis-related platform is in House File 100 — including the demand that residents be allowed to home grow cannabis, which only 10 other states have allowed for recreational uses.

Kevin O’Connor
Kevin O’Connor
O’Connor said Legal Marijuana Now hopes to evolve into an independent party that seeks broader support among voters looking for alternatives.

“We want to attract good, strong, independent candidates who believe in limited government,” he said. “We’re not trying to eliminate government in any way, but it should be limited to the areas that it should be limited to, and marijuana and the war on drugs is an example of an area the government shouldn’t have been in.

“We’re going towards being that independent, third choice, that is so much needed in our country,” O’Connor said. “Independents can’t vote for anyone but a Democrat or a Republican because everyone else has been locked out of the system, which is disgraceful and undemocratic.”

There are challenges for Legal Marijuana Now in the new law. Embedded in the lengthy state government and elections omnibus bill (line 138.2 here) are changes to make it more difficult to gain major party status, something two marijuana legalization parties accomplished in 2018.  The Grassroots Legal Cannabis party and Legal Marijuana won more than 5% of the vote in two different statewide races.

Those involved in the legalization parties have expressed surprise that they gathered enough votes to become major parties. While that status brings privileges like automatic ballot placement for candidates and access to some public funding and voter lists, it also brings headaches. The biggest is losing control over who runs under the party name. Still, many of those suspect candidates were later endorsed by Legal Marijuana Now leadership while being condemned by the founder of the Grassroots party who said the new parties weren’t “ready for prime time” and were prone to a hostile takeover.

Some Minnesota DFLers have had their eyes on the state law governing when minor political parties can become major parties since 2020. That is when some candidates with tenuous or non-existent connections to the legalization movement entered contested GOP-DFL races under one of the legalization party names.

Only in one case — the GOP victory in the Shakopee-centered House district 54a — did the presence of a legalization party candidate appear to spoil the race for the DFL (the same DFL candidate had won two years earlier with no legalization candidate on the ballot). That election, plus other alleged attempts by legalize candidates to take votes away from Democrats, motivated DFLers to prevent “spoilers” from getting ballot access again. This year, with majorities in both the House and Senate, they finally did something about it.

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How big is three percentage points? Neither marijuana legalization party that won major party status in 2018 would have qualified at 8%. But despite his protests at a hearing earlier in the session, former Gov. Jesse Ventura would have been able to run in 1998 on the Reform Party ticket due to an 11.75% showing by Ross Perot in 1996.

Even the 10% threshold proposed by DFL lawmakers earlier this session — and endorsed by the chairs of the state DFL and GOP parties — wouldn’t have blocked Ventura. But the 8% in the omnibus bill is still unreachable for new parties.

Legal Marijuana Now’s O’Connor called an 8% threshold “a backbreaker.”

“But hey, let’s be honest, 5% was a backbreaker,” he said. O’Connor was the U.S. Senate candidate for Legal Marijuana Now in 2020 and his 5.92% vote is what retained major party status. He thinks his low-budget campaign attracted some legalization voters and some just looking for an alternative to the GOP and DFL. He said he thinks that success, not the threat of “spoiler” candidates led the DFL to bump it to 8%.

There’s more. Major parties must now certify to the secretary of state that they have organized a party, have a constitution and held conventions and had candidates for a certain number of partisan races across the state. If the secretary of state does not receive such proof of party viability, he or she can demote the party to minor party status and deny them public funding. That certification process is a new way to enforce existing laws.

That could be a challenge for Legal Marijuana Now that O’Connor said they haven’t analyzed yet.

“It would not surprise me whatsoever if they tried to throw some hurdles in there to remove it from us,” O’Connor said.

So-called minor parties also have concerns with the new law. The Libertarian Party of Minnesota, the third largest party in the state, said the language in the omnibus bill signed by Walz made existing onerous laws more so. Libertarian party candidates have qualified for automatic ballot access in 43 states over the last five decades but never in Minnesota. Without getting automatic access, candidates for minor parties must follow strict petition rules that require a set number of voter signatures to be collected in a narrow time window.

“We call on the Minnesota Legislature to fix the problem of spoilers by offering minor party ballot access, requiring nomination by convention for minor parties, and without disenfranchising the thousands of Minnesotans who vote third party and the nearly half who identify as independent and who are not represented by the current duopoly in St. Paul,” said state Libertarian Party chair Marianne Stebbins.

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In looking for good news in a Minnesota DFL-driven elections bill, minor parties are left with only an end to the requirement that they use legal-sized paper for their nominating petitions. No longer will they need to use 8.5 by 14-inch paper for their petitions; regular 8.5 by 11-inch paper is fine.

But there were no changes to make it easier to qualify minor party candidates for the ballot. Individual candidates must collect signatures that vary in number depending on the race. A party could gain major party status without gaining 8% of a statewide election but they would need to collect 130,000 voter signatures.

Wisconsin requires 1% of a statewide vote for governor or president or 20,000 signatures. Iowa requires 2% and South Dakota 1%.

Richard Winger is a writer who follows election law nationally, especially how it treats access to the ballot for third parties. He told the Senate Elections Committee earlier in the session that the proposed law would make the state an outlier in ballot access.

“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.”

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‘Achievable threshold’ 

Sen. Bonnie Westlin, DFL-Plymouth, has been trying to find a way to restrict “spoiler” candidates. She offered a plan to replace the proposed 10% vote threshold with a requirement that major parties certify candidates who were either nominated at a convention or gathered at least 30% support. The endorsed candidates would be placed first on the ballot. She did not offer her plan on the Senate floor when she learned it lacked enough support to pass.

“People liked the idea but the concern was that it came together a little too quickly and they needed more time to digest any unintended consequences,” she said.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Bonnie Westlin testifying in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Bill sponsor state Sen. Bonnie Westlin testifying in front of the Senate Elections Committee.
She termed the 8% threshold a compromise between the current 5% and the previously proposed 10%. But the lone Republican on the state government and elections conference committee said it was “punitive” to minor parties.

State Rep. Jim Nash
State Rep. Jim Nash
“I’m one of nine so I know the outcome,” Rep. Jim Nash said of the partisan makeup of the conference committee. “I just think this is not something Minnesota should be proud of. We should encourage what might be minor parties to have an achievable threshold to be considered a major party.”

Westlin said she was closer to Nash’s philosophy than he might think. She said resolving the issue of having candidates with no connection to parties like the legalization parties run under their banner is “challenging and difficult.

“We have had problems with parties that were begun by activists who submitted petitions and did all the hard work who then found their parties taken over by bad actors,” Westlin said. What ended up in the bill is what could get enough votes, she said, while pledging to keep working on the issue in the interim.