"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
Minn. Senate Squelches Attempt
To Choke Off Third Parties
Posted 11:54 p.m., April 15, 2004
This, as it turns out, is old news - but it's good news. And it has not been reported elsewhere, as far as I can tell.
I did a bit of Web research tonight and discovered that Minnesota Senate File 1249 was, on April 1, "stricken and returned to author" by general orders of the Minnesota State Senate. For supporters of Minnesota's upstart-friendly ballot-access laws that make it possible for third-party candidates like Jesse Ventura to win election to high political office in the state, the demise of this bill is a very good thing.
The bill, authored by Sen. Linda Higgins, was a classic attempt by a major-party politician to twist legislation in an effort to further consolidate power in the hands of the two-party duopoly.
The effect of Higgins' bill would‚??ve been to kill third parties‚?? official major-party status and deprive them of public financing. It would also force candidates to wait until after the November elections to collect public financing dollars owed them, rather than collecting the cash after the September primaries--in time to use the money to conduct campaigns.
That would negate reforms enacted by Gov. Jesse Ventura after his 1998 election victory. Ventura was unable to collect public financing while the contest was ongoing, had to convince bankers that he would receive 5 percent off the vote, and that they should loan him the modest amount of money that public financing would have provided. It was only by securing that cash that Ventura was able to run the Bill Hillsman-produced "Jesse Ventura Action Figure" and "Thinker" ads that many believe allowed Ventura to win.
The Big Easy
Contrast that to the easy money that is routinely collected by Democrats and Republicans through big-money donations that can either be funneled directly to candidates or through the parties, which can effectively run supplemental campaigns on behalf of candidates through use of expensive ‚??issue ads" and other partisan activities.
It hardly seems necessary that the two major parties should be moved to stack the deck in this way. What Higgins told the Star Tribune was that her motives were all about shepherding public dollars. "We want to make sure that we're not financing candidates who aren't really viable," she said.
Making sure they can't possibly compete is a very efficient way of achieving that goal.
Higgins' justification might have carried more weight had the bill stopped there, but it didn't. The bill also contained provisions that would have forced parties to get 5 percent of the vote in statewide elections every two years, instead of every four years, as is now the law.
If that provision were to go into effect, the Independence and Green parties--currently the state's two legal alternative "major parties"--would be forced to run candidates for the presidential contest this fall, because it is the only statewide election this year. That would be particularly onerous for the centrist Independence Party, which exists only in Minnesota and could not possibly attract 5 percent of the vote in a hotly contested 2004 presidential election when its candidate wouldn't appear on any other state's ballot. Understandably, the party has no interest in running a presidential candidate.
Under current law, the Greens and "Indies" wouldn't have to meet the 5 percent threshold until 2006, when all five statewide constitutional offices would be up for grabs and there will be a statewide U.S. Senate contest.
The 10 Percent Solution
Higgins generously provided another avenue for public financing in her bill by offering a third party earning 10 percent of the vote for any legislative race to qualify for major-party status and public financing.
Now, if you are a major party stalwart, Republican or Democrat, perhaps that all sounds reasonable. But the fact is that there is nothing in either the law or the constitution that guarantees the major parties that they should be able to breeze through any election and this bill was designed to assure just that.
Third parties, whether successful in terms of electing candidates or not, have often been highly effective in shaping the issues upon which campaigns are run and upon which elected officials are later obligated to make policy. Ross Perot's push for a balanced budget in 1992 framed that election, and the Clinton presidency.
Third parties and third party movements are also largely responsible for such political innovations as Social Security, the eight-hour workweek, child labor laws and many other reforms. And Minnesota, which elected both Ventura and an even more successful third-party power broker, Floyd B. Olson, in the 1930s has a rich tradition of opening the election process to a variety of voices.
It may seem a waste of energy to go on at such length about a bill that died so young. But this thing once appeared to have legs. It actually cleared the Senate Elections Committee by a 6-4 vote in early March. And this fight may not be over. The bill was initially submitted in 2003, and could be rewritten and returned again later. Keep an eye out.
In the meantime, kudos to the Senate for wisely squelching this unfair power grab.
Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a Minnesota journalist who covers politics and technology. He has authored or contributed to five previous books, Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site (1998), The Wired Journalist (1999), Elements of Language (2001), Pop Music and the Press (2002) and Encyclopedia of New Media (2003). His byline has appeared in Editor & Publisher, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Online Journalism Review and Minnesota Law & Politics, among other publications. In 2000, he was a media coordinator for Web, White & Blue, the first online presidential debates. Currently is news editor for the McGraw-Hill tech publication, Healthcare Informatics.
Copyright 2004, by Kevin Featherly