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In a competitive election, critics of third-party candidates often regard them as “spoilers,” who may tip a close election to the candidate most ideologically divergent from them by drawing away votes from the candidate they are ideologically closer to.

Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party Chairman Chris Wright strongly disagrees with the characterization. He says that both major parties have failed to deliver on important issues and that by voting for one of them, voters are enabling the “status quo” to continue.

“We haven’t spoiled the economy, social policies or the environment,” he said. “They like to call us spoilers because they feel they have an entitlement to power.”

While DFL candidates might seem to be more in danger of losing some of their supporters to a pro-marijuana Party candidate, Gustavus Adolphus College Professor Chris Gilbert said it’s not that clear cut.

Gilbert said that while legalizing marijuana is traditionally seen as a liberal issue, and enjoys strong backing from young voters, who lean DFL in general, many libertarian-minded voters who hold right-leaning views on other issues support it as well.

According to the Star-Tribune/MPR News Minnesota poll, support for recreational marijuana is strongest among DFLers, with 59% expressing support. But with support from 50% of Independent voters and 42% of Republicans, it doesn’t break down as neatly along party lines as many other issues.

Carleton College Professor Melanie Freeze said she’s studied the “spoiler” issue extensively and the evidence is far from clear cut. While she said that third parties can tip an extraordinarily close election, she said their impact is often less direct.

“It’s hard to find evidence of the spoiler effect,” she said. “(Third parties) activate people who wouldn’t have come out to vote and pull from both candidates.”

On the other hand, young voters tend to be the strongest demographic of support for third parties, recreational marijuana and DFL candidates. Thus, many Republicans are expecting that the DFL side is more likely to take a hit if they do well.

Rice County Republican Party Chair Kathy Dodds said that she expects the district’s conservative voters to largely eschew pro-marijuana candidates. Dodds said that many Rice County Republicans are comfortable with the party’s skepticism towards recreational marijuana.

“I don’t think it will hurt the Republicans so much, but I think there are a lot of liberals that want marijuana legislation to pass and they would consider voting for the third party,” she said.

Dodds noted that while Republicans have expressed discomfort with recreational marijuana, many have also voiced support for medical marijuana. However, attempts to relax the state’s restrictive medical marijuana laws have faced resistance from Republicans.

Since the medical marijuana program launched in 2015, the state has banned sale of the raw cannabis flower, only allowing marijuana extract to be sold in liquid, pill or vaporized form, which medical marijuana advocates say has driven up costs while limiting treatment options. An attempt by the DFL-controlled House to remove this ban was included in the state’s healthcare omnibus bill. However, Senate Republicans blocked the provision, siding with advocacy organizations skeptical of marijuana who say the ban is needed to prevent smoking.

By simply being on the ballot, third parties can raise attention to certain issues and pressure candidates. Freeze noted that while a variety of factors are at work, DFLers have become increasingly vocal about the issue since both pro-marijuana parties achieved major party status.

Still, both Gilbert and Freeze agreed that both pro-marijuana parties are extremely unlikely to win seats. Even during the height of its popularity, the Reform/Independence Party of former Gov. Jesse Ventura rarely won more than 10% of the vote, Freeze said.

Last year, DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler launched a listening tour, traveling the state to get feedback from residents across Minnesota on the issue. He subsequently introduced a bill in the legislature that would legalize it.

Similarly, Gov. Tim Walz ordered state agencies to prepare for the legalization of marijuana. However, the State Senate remains under Republican control, and has remained firmly opposed to marijuana legalization.

Scrambling

While both pro-marijuana parties are enjoying unprecedented levels of support, Minnesota’s other minor parties have been left scrambling to maintain a presence on Minnesota ballots at all.

Currently, the state has three official minor parties. Any party which achieves more than 1% of the vote in a statewide election is granted minor party status for the next two elections, which brings several benefits.

Under that program, Minnesotans can make a contribution of up to $50 to a recognized major or minor party and receive a full refund. Currently, the Green Party, Libertarian Party and Independence-Alliance Party qualify as minor parties.

The Independence-Alliance Party, once known as the Minnesota Reform Party, was the party of Ventura and enjoyed major party status for 20 years. It lost that after failing to reach 5% in any statewide race in the 2014 elections.

With COVID-19 making it impossible to gather signatures for ballot access through face to face voter contact, the Libertarians, Greens, Independence Alliance Party and Veterans Party of Minnesota successfully lobbied for changes allowing signatures to be gathered electronically.

When it comes to getting on the ballot in local races, Libertarian Party Chairman Chris Holbrook said that electronic signature gathering has proved next to useless, because under state law signatures to get on the ballot in a local race must be gathered from residents of the district.

While signatures of residents living in a certain area could easily be gathered by going door to door, Holbrook said it’s nearly impossible to do that electronically. With most email addresses private, it’s exceptionally hard to electronically send a petition to a large number of people in a certain neighborhood. As a result, very few minor party candidates successfully managed to make it on to the ballot for Congress or state Legislature. In an attempt to gain more time, the four parties filed a lawsuit seeking additional time for signature gathering.

The Secretary of State’s Office fought them and court, arguing that as the minor parties had received other accommodations, including permission to gather signatures electronically, additional time should not be needed.

The minor parties lost their initial case, though appeals are ongoing. Holbrook noted that in a number of other states, courts have provided additional relief to make it easier for minor parties to get on the ballot.

Nominating petitions to get presidential candidates on the ballot are ongoing, and are not due until August. This week, Minnesota Libertarians started circulating a ballot petition to get its candidates, Jo Jorgensen and Jeremy “Spike” Lee, onto the November ballot.

Holbrook said that while the Libertarian Party may not have ballot access, a number of Libertarians and libertarian-leaning candidates have taken advantage of the official party status held by the two pro-marijuana parties to run under their banner.

In general, he said that Minnesota’s third parties have had warm relations and offered each other support. In addition, he noted that the Libertarian Party has strongly advocated for legalization of marijuana and an end to the “War on Drugs” since its inception.

Aided by the historic unpopularity of major party candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, third parties enjoyed a historic rise in support. The Libertarian ticket performed the best, winning about 3.8% in Minnesota and 3.3% nationwide.

“Third parties tend to do better when they name someone who has some political resume, and that usually means someone who served for one of the major parties,” he said.

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