COVID-19 is killing minor parties' ability to get candidates on the ballot in Minnesota
State Sen. Scott Jensen, center, joined Independence Party Chair Phillip Fuehrer, far left; Minnesota Green Party Chair Trahern Crews, center left; and Libertarian Party Chair Chris Holbrook, center right; at a February press conference at the State Capitol to promote minor party ballot access.
The most fertile places for Minnesota's minor political parties to gather signatures to get their candidates on the ballot are lakes and festivals. But COVID-19 has made both off-limits for party petitioners — and going door-to-door isn't a viable alternative.
Secretary of State Steve Simon has included that provision among several others related to the peacetime emergency caused by the coronavirus. But that request has been caught up in the fight over expanded vote by mail in Minnesota.
Under state election law, minor parties must gather signatures of 2,000 registered voters to place a U.S. Senate candidate before fall voters; 1,000 signatures for a U.S. House candidate; and 500 for state House and Senate candidates. They must collect those signatures from May 19 to June 2 (though they have more time for a presidential nominee).
Minnesota's requirements are already a heavy lift, the parties complain, which is why they are part of a federal lawsuit that is set to be heard on May 19.
"We can only get so many signatures every day, and we only have 14 days to do it, maybe it limits the number of candidates for us," said Chris Holbrook, the chair of the Minnesota Libertarian party. "The coronavirus only underscores the structural problems that we started suing on last year in the first place."
He said the Libertarians get 80 percent of the signatures needed by petitioning around the lakes in Minneapolis and at festivals like Grand Old Day in St. Paul. The parks will likely remain closed and Grand Old Day has been cancelled this year.
"And the governor has ordered people to not get within six feet of each other so we currently have no options at all," Holbrook said.
The Libertarians are working with the Green Party and the Independence-Alliance Party to win the changes at the capitol.
"We're all in the same boat," Holbrook said of the other parties. "They have their different political philosophies and ideologies, and we're not merging our political efforts with the exception of all minor parties are going to get screwed if they don't give us some option to participate."
The lawsuit is asking the U.S. District Court for injunctive relief to extend the petition window to the August 11 state primary date. At the same time, the minor parties have also asked Gov. Tim Walz to use an executive order to change the dates or lower the signature requirements. Finally, the parties are also asking the legislature to allow electronic signatures "so we don't endanger the public or ourselves in getting our candidates on the ballots."
But Holbrook said the changes minor parties have asked for have previously been blocked by legislative Republicans, and that he expects a similar reaction this year.
Caught up in fight over vote-by-mail
The bill before the House State Government Finance subcommittee addressing some of the minor parties' concerns tries to do a lot of things. Initially, the purpose of the bill was to appropriate money sent to the states by Congress for cybersecurity projects. While some of that money was eventually cleared for use by Secretary of State Steve Simon, an argument between DFLer Simon and the GOP-controlled Senate over voter ID and provisional balloting has left the rest, some $7.39 million, unappropriated. (In the meantime, Congress has sent even more money to the states, this time for COVID-19 related expenses related to elections; Minnesota's share is $6.9 million.)
Amendments to the bill, House File 3499, would give Simon the authority to make other election changes if the COVID-19 crisis continues through the primary and general elections. Those changes could include ordering the closure of high-risk polling places such as those in long-term care facilities. It would also authorize remote filing for office as well as extend the period before and after elections for absentee ballots to be processed and counted. Finally, it would respond to the request of the minor parties to be allowed to gather petition signatures electronically.
"It is not really right and fair to make supporters of those parties go door-to-door or to public places to gather physical human signatures," Simon told the House committee Thursday. "We might have our differences with people from non-major parties, but to ask them to go out and hustle signatures in public places doesn't seem very safe."
But it was a separate amendment — one that would allow the state to run an all vote-by-mail election — that colored the response from Republican committee members to all the COVID-related amendments.
Vote-by-mail has drawn opposition for national and state Republicans, making it unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. But Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said he was leery of giving Simon any of the emergency powers the bill envisions. Instead, the Legislature could return to pass changes related to COVID-19 should they be needed as the election dates draw nearer.
"I'm hesitant to say we're gonna wrap this up in a bow and let the secretary figure it out," Nash said. "The Legislature has to continue operating as the Legislature. We have the election certificates, we have the ability to make these changes, committees are still meeting, we have a commitment to address election issues."
Rep. Michael Nelson, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park and chair of the committee, said the committee will keep working on the bill. "I don't see this as us handing huge powers to the Secretary of State," Nelson said.
Current law does not allow any changes to polling places after December, 2019, for example, so moving or combining them because of concerns over COVID exposure must be authorized by the Legislature. "There are things that have got to get done in here," he said.