MN Supreme Court ruling: Primary ballot will stay as it is

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A man in a tan suit stands next to another man and a microphone.
James Martin (left) stands next to his attorney Erick Kaardal after a Supreme Court hearing on Thursday. Martin is challenging a Republican primary ballot listing only President Donald Trump.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Updated: 4:40 p.m.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has denied a Republican candidate's bid to join Donald Trump on Minnesota's presidential primary ballot.

In a ruling issued just hours after hearing oral arguments on Thursday, justices ruled that the ballot would stay as it is. Republican voters will choose between Trump or a write-in option.

Candidate Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente and his Minnesota supporter tried to get access to the ballot. They argued that the Republican Party shouldn’t be able to exclude qualified candidates in a taxpayer-funded election.

“The one way the voters express their dissent is to have their votes counted even if their candidate doesn’t win,” said their shared attorney Erick Kaardal. “It may affect the process moving forward.”

He told justices that the law setting up Minnesota’s first presidential primary since 1992 didn’t contemplate a single option scenario, noting that the statute calls for candidates. Should the outcome stand, he said it would be ripe for abuse.

“This was unforeseen, this temptation that will now occur every four years that the party of the incumbent president will want to be the only candidate on Minnesota’s presidential ballot for their party,” Kaardal said. “And that’s a temptation that will be difficult to resist.”

But in their brief ruling, justices said the arguments lacked merit.

A fuller opinion will come later but the court wanted to decide quickly given that primary voting begins on Jan 17.

The hearing earlier on Thursday saw justices both lean on legal precedent affording parties through a state-managed process control over their primary ballots and also voice concerns about fairness.

“Isn’t there something disturbing about the idea that the state can effectively control who voters get to vote for?” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea asked at one point. “Just at a 50,000-foot level, isn’t there something disturbing about that?”

She pointed her question at Nathan Hartshorn, who was defending the ballot makeup on behalf of DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon.

“The right to vote, especially in a presidential primary, does not imply the right to demand that the candidate you want to vote for is in that primary,” Hartshorn said a moment earlier. “A major reason why that is not the implication is because the party has free association rights.”

Minnesota’s votes will be counted on March 3, the day of the primary. That’s led to warnings from state and local elections officials that a last-minute change to the ballot could upend a smooth start to voting.

One of Kaardal’s clients, James Martin of Lake Elmo, said he’s not sure what he’ll do if he can’t be sure his vote for De La Fuente will be formally counted. While write-ins will be allowed, the state party will decide later if they are lumped into one column or get segregated by candidate.

“I actually haven’t thought about voting for anyone else aside from Rocky to be honest with you,” Martin said outside the courtroom, where his lawyer vowed to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Multiple Minnesota justices appeared bothered that the state Republican Party stayed silent in the case, declining an invitation to submit a brief or make any other kind of appearance.

“We don’t have that party here asserting its associational rights,” Gildea said. “And what, if anything, can we interpret from the absence of that party here to the value they, it places on associational rights?”

Gildea posed her question to Hartshorn, the lawyer for Simon, who argued to keep the primary ballot as it is.

“I don’t think there is any dispute that they have made the political decision that they want their ballot on March 3rd to have President Trump’s name on the ballot and nobody else’s,” Hartshorn said.

For their part, state Democrats will have 15 candidates and an uncommitted line on their ballot. Some candidates who have dropped out since the ballot was set will still have their names appear.

While justices lobbed tough questions at both lawyers, they also indicated the need for some guardrails to avoid political mischief.

“Well, would it be unconstitutional for the state to reject a candidate for the Republican primary who is an avowed Democrat?” Justice David Lillehaug asked Kaardal.

Kaardal agreed some standards are OK to ensure only qualified candidates aligned with their party’s core beliefs are listed. The name of “Mickey Mouse” wouldn’t be legitimate, he added.

But he said it’s also it’s silly for taxpayers to pay for a primary — this one is estimated to cost $12 million — that doesn’t give voters options.

“Why would you have a right to vote without a meaningful vote? The constitution requires that if you’re giving the voter a right to vote, it has to be a meaningful vote,” he said.

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