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.
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. Last 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.
A poster at South Central College in Faribault heralds a quote from the late Sandra Thomas, who named SCC Faribault Campus Foundation as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy: “ … Our giving doesn’t have to end when we can no longer write a check.”
Thomas, who died July 6, 2018, selected SCC as the lead recipient of her estate, which totals approximately $1.4 million. SCC received approximately $200,000, which established an endowment in Thomas’ name for nursing and health care scholarships. In addition to SCC, over 20 other organizations and individuals in Faribault and Thomas’s hometown of New Richland have received portions of her legacy gift. That includes funds for the city’s Fire Department, library and local cemetery.
Shelly Rockman, executive director of the South Central College Faribault Campus Foundation, said Thomas had provided annual scholarships for nursing students since 2006. For six years until her death, she gave a named scholarship to students on a yearly basis.
Thomas’s particular focus for her scholarships was licensed practical nurses (LPNs) returning to school to become registered nurses. However, if none of SCC’s graduating students in any particular year fit that criteria, Thomas was open to giving the scholarship to anyone on the track to become a nurse. Now, thanks to Thomas’ legacy gift, SCC can award several scholarships to nursing students on an annual basis instead of just one or two.
Thomas, Rockman explained, had a history of being a hospice volunteer. Through that experience, she became acquainted with nurses and later wanted to help LPNs like the ones she had met.
“She was a really generous and wonderful person,” said Rockman of Thomas. “Her desire to give and support students came from that very personal experience she had.”
Rockman said Thomas’s involvement with SSC started with mailing a check every year, and she later participated in the scholarship lunch to meet students who benefited from her donations. Thomas then became a volunteer with SCC and encouraged others to make contributions as well.
“She went the full spectrum of involvement from being a regular annual contributor, then told people, ‘This is what I do every year and why’ and asked them to do that, too,” said Rockman of Thomas.
Some of the other organizations Thomas included in her legacy are ones her good friend, Faribault resident Dick Huston, introduced. The Christian Veterinary Mission, Seattle, Washington, is one of them. The legacy gift of $28,300 supports the work of Dr. Susan Stewart, who Thomas met through Huston. The two, according to Huston “got along famously.”
While volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota, Huston introduced Thomas to his “Little Brother,” and she made an impact on him. She left $42,500 to BBBS as part of her legacy gift.
Huston met Thomas around 35 years ago, when the two of them plus Thomas’s husband, Dave, met for coffee at a former donut shop in Faribault. The group moved to Hardee’s and later McDonald’s. During these years, Thomas’s husband, Dave, preceded her in death in 1995.
“I didn’t go [to McDonald’s] every morning but she did,” said Huston. “We’d have coffee 75 to 100 times a year. I got to know her well.”
Huston said the Thomases really enjoyed baseball and attended almost every high school basketball game and football game as spectators. Even though they never had children of their own, they supported their neighbors’ children in their sports.
Huston recalls Thomas, as a widow, often visiting and keeping in contact with those dealing with illnesses while living in rest homes.
“She was one of the kindest, most caring people I ever met,” said Huston of Thomas. “… She was very pragmatic. She advocated for her opinions. She was very loyal to a lot of organizations and people.”