MINOT, N.D. — There is a lot to dislike about the way North Dakota goes about selecting partisan nominees for elected office.
I'm not talking about who ultimately gets elected to office, but rather how the parties choose which candidates will represent them in any given contest on the ballot. Right now, the political parties really don't have that much control over the process.
The Republicans and the Democrats and the Libertarians organize conventions, from the district level up to the state level, and at those conventions, delegates choose candidates. But completely outside of those conventions is another process through which anyone can gather some signatures and represent a political party on the primary ballot.
That happened to the Democrats just last cycle. At their convention, the Democratic-NPL chose Minot resident Zach Raknerud as their U.S. House candidate to take on Republican Kelly Armstrong. But appearing on the June primary ballot as well for the Democrats was long-time gadfly Roland Riemers, who is on the ballot for one office or another nearly every political cycle.
Riemers is not a Democrat. The Democratic-NPL made it clear that Riemers was not their candidate. But state law allowed him to appear on the ballot for the Democratic-NPL anyway despite having no real ties to the party.
This brings us to the 2021 legislative session and House Bill 1253, introduced by Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot. This is what's typically referred to in legislative parlance as a "clean up" bill, which is to say, a bill that makes numerous small changes to state law in one topic area. In this instance, it's the electoral process, and to this point, the bill seemed to be sailing through both chambers of the Legislature with few issues.
It passed the House 93-1 in February and the Senate 43-4 earlier this month, but now there is some consternation with language in the bill (there since it was introduced) which changes the ballot language for candidates.
"The word 'endorsed' or 'petition' will appear after or under the name of a candidate for the statewide or legislative district office," the bill reads. "The word 'endorsed' in this context means the candidate was endorsed by the political party indicated. The word 'petition' in this context means the candidate circulated a petition for signatures to be included on the ballot."
The utility of this language is obvious. It informs voters as to which candidates on a primary ballot have the endorsement of the party's relevant political convention (district or statewide) and which made the ballot through petition signatures.
Why is this controversial?
For a few reasons that are kind of complicated and very down-in-the-weeds of Republican politics.
Remember that some high-profile Republicans in office right now didn't abide by the decision of the NDGOP's conventions. In 2016, during his first gubernatorial campaign, Doug Burgum came in third place for the nomination at the convention, behind Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and state Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck. He gathered signatures and went on to win the nomination anyway on the statewide June ballot.
More recently, at the district level, people aligned with the Legislature's Bastiat Caucus have been organizing takeovers of local NDGOP parties and then using that new control to censure sitting lawmakers. If those folks control the district parties, they also control the endorsing conventions, where some incumbent Republicans could find themselves out in the cold.
It can be argued that the NDGOP's conventions, both at the state and district levels, often don't truly represent the will of the people, given how often convention-endorsed candidates lose on the June primary ballot.
On the other hand, it's also fair to point out that the June ballot opens the door to people with no genuine affiliation with the party (see: Roland Riemers) getting the party's nomination.
Remember, North Dakota has no voter registration, and voters can choose whichever partisan ballot they want in the primary vote.
People who want to keep the conventions relevant to the political process are supporting this language. People who are afraid that the conventions aren't a great process for picking the best candidates oppose it.
This humble observer feels the language is just fine - it will help inform voters who the convention-endorsed candidates are and who made the ballot with petitions — but it's hardly the fix this process needs.
Political parties are private entities, yet the process by which they choose their candidates is dictated by state law. That shouldn't be. How the NDGOP (or the Democratic-NPL or the Libertarians, etc.) choose their candidates should be up to the members of those respective parties. There shouldn't be some backdoor process through which someone who is not really a member of the party can seize the party's nomination anyway.
But, in lieu of that sort of reform, what House Bill 1253 offers is at least a step in the right direction.
The bill has been in conference committee (where the House and Senate negotiate the differences between the bill versions they each passed), but I'm told some senators may be orchestrating an effort to kill it.
Let's hope that doesn't happen.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.