MN DFL leaders defend law that led to Trump-only GOP primary ballot

A sign shows people where to vote.
A sign outside of the Arlington Hills Library directs voters to the polls in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Two of Minnesota’s leading Democratic officeholders and the state DFL Party went to bat this week for a state law the Republican Party relied on to include only President Trump by name on the March presidential primary ballot.

The odd bedfellows situation at the start of a supercharged 2020 election year comes in a case before Minnesota’s Supreme Court. The case attempts to open up the ballot to a Republican trying to challenge Trump while also undoing the law that led to it.

In briefs filed by a Tuesday deadline, Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon and the state DFL Party argue for the preservation of party power in determining primary ballot line-ups. Simon, the defendant in the case, is represented by DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office.

“The state has a legitimate interest in avoiding a ‘laundry list’ ballot that contains the name of every would-be candidate, no matter how frivolous her candidacy,” the Simon brief says.

If that happened, it goes on, “both Minnesota voters and their election system would suffer from the lengthy lists of candidates that would inevitably result.”

The Minnesota DFL’s friend-of-the-court brief cites previous federal court decisions that “the major political parties’ freedom of association necessarily includes a right not to associate.”

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The DFL’s ballot will list 15 candidates and an “uncommitted” option even if the field continues to shrink before the state’s turn in the nominating contest.

Neither the Republican Party nor Trump’s campaign submitted written arguments in the case, which was filed last month by Republican presidential candidate Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente and a Minnesota voter who supports him.

In a Tuesday filing of their own, the lawyer for De La Fuente and voter James Martin said the GOP and Simon extended “an unfair advantage” to Trump over his Republican rivals.

“The Republican Party created a class of one: Mr. Trump,” lawyer Erick Kaardal wrote. “The Republican Party excluded all others from the printed ballot even though there are qualified candidates that oppose him but carry the Republican Party banner.”

Kaardal adds that who foots the bill matters to the situation.

“This is not a party-paid primary or straw poll at the precinct caucuses. It is state funded,” he wrote. “As such, people have the right to fully participate in a presidential primary on March 3, 2020 with a full slate of candidates.”

The case questions the constitutionality of the law vesting the power of parties to act as gatekeepers.

The court hears arguments next week. Absentee voting begins on Jan. 17 for the March 3 election.

This is the first presidential primary in Minnesota since 1992, replacing the preference ballots at caucuses that had been the norm for decades. The state Legislature granted the ballot-setting duties to the parties when it wrote a recent primary law.

Simon, the state’s top election official, said the challenge to the single-candidate Republican presidential primary ballot should also be turned back because the plaintiffs waited too long to lodge their complaint.

The Republican Party submitted its ballot plan in October and just before Christmas notified the state that write-ins will be allowed.

Simon’s lawyers said that provided ample time for a case to be filed. Instead, the petition came in state court on Dec. 13 — just more than a month before voting is set to begin. Simon has warned the court that ballot preparations could be hindered if justices rule for De La Fuente’s side.

Both new briefs say De La Fuente and his supporters have a remedy: He can seek general election ballot access as a minor party candidate and, if he meets the criteria, be listed in November.

Like the DFL Party’s brief, Simon’s filing also says the Republican Party shouldn’t be forced to associate with a candidate it doesn’t want on its ballot.

“A political party is a private association that holds a First Amendment right to identify the people who constitute the association and to limit its membership to those people alone,” the brief reads. “As such, parties have the right to choose their party leaders without interference from federal or state governments.”