Yesterday, Doug Burgum confirmed that he is running for governor. He’s calling himself a Republican. However, he also explained that he was going to run as a Republican whether the Republican Party wanted him to or not.
It all has to do with how names get on ballots.
Ever wonder how those names got there?
Let’s work backwards from the general election ballot. That’s the one most people understand and vote on in November.
Your general election ballot, for the governor’s race, will have one person’s name on it for each political party in North Dakota that meets the minimum ballot requirements. There will be a candidate with an “R” next to his name. There may be a Democrat, and there may be a Libertarian. There may be an Independent.
Anyone who is a legal voter in ND can vote on the general election ballot.
What if more than one person wants to run for governor as a Republican?
As I understand it, state law forbids that. The general ballot can have one candidate from each qualifying party.
So, to settle who the single candidate from each party will be, an earlier election is held, called a primary election. In the primary election, voters choose which single Republican they want to make it onto the general ballot. These usually happen in July.
The primary election is also state law. And like the general election, anyone who is a legal voter in ND can vote on the primary election.
So, how do you get your name on the primary ballot?
Basically, you need enough signatures of people saying they want you on the primary.
Option 1: You can decide to go it alone, in which case, you are responsible for managing the signature collection, and you are spending a fair bit of your money to pay signature gatherers.
By the way – if someone chooses this route, they can say they are part of whatever political party they like. For instance, nothing prevents Hillary Clinton from getting her name on the North Dakota primary ballot and calling herself a Republican. She can call herself a Republican even though she’d never be chosen by actual Republicans in our state.
Option 2: “be the endorsed candidate from one of the big two parties”.
This is the typical way that names get on ballots. The party presents a slate of endorsed candidates to the election commission.
So how do you become the “endorsed candidate” of the state Republican Party?
Every election cycle, the Republican Party of ND holds a state convention, where invited Republicans (called “delegates”) from across the state get together and work out some of the business of the party.
The main business that occurs at the state convention is that the state party chooses which candidates it will endorse for the various elections. The endorsed candidates are the official choices of the state Republican Party, and the Party can submit one endorsed candidate per office.
How does the endorsing happen?
Each legislative district in the state – which sends your state legislators to Bismarck – has its own district-level Republican party. You can find your legislators and legislative district information here.
Each district party chooses delegates from its population that it will send to the state Republican convention. Each district-level Republican Party has bylaws that spell out the rules that determine how to choose the delegates.
For instance, most districts’ bylaws require that the district’s executive committee members are automatic delegates to the state endorsing convention. Typically, any currently serving legislators are also automatic delegates. Previous holders of certain offices who live in that district are also automatic delegates.
The bylaws state who the automatic delegates are, but, each district typically has more delegate “slots” allocated to it than the bylaws specifically name. Therefore, the bylaws also specify the process for filling the remaining delegate slots. In the past, this varied a bit from district to district. Sometimes it was a delegate nominating and endorsing convention at the district level, sometimes the executive committee just chose who they knew. The precise rules are explained in the bylaws for each district – which have all been updated in the last 3 years to be essentially consistent across the entire state.
In summary, there is a preference about who gets picked first to fill a delegate slot: you’ve done something for the Republican Party (volunteered, held office, donated money, etc).
To give a sense of how many people are involved, there will be around 1800 delegates going to the Republican state convention this year, which is the weekend of April 1, in Fargo. As it happens, many districts are working out their delegate selections now, so if you are interested in becoming a delegate, contact your local Republican district chair (find yours here).
To give you a sense of just how local, accessible, and grass-roots ND politics really is, each legislative district is defined by state law to have around 14,000 people in it. Out of that total set of people in a district, not all of them are adults, not all adults are Republicans, and not all adult Republicans are interested in going to the state convention. My district has been allocated 48 delegates to send to the state convention this year, and many years, there are districts that aren’t able to fill all their delegate slots.
Once the delegates make it to the state convention, the various candidates get up on stage, explain what office they are interested in, talk about their qualifications, etc. Afterwards, the delegates vote on who the state party will endorse for each different race in the coming election cycle.
This is the state party endorsing convention. This is how the state Republican Party chooses who it hopes will be on the general election ballot to battle against the Democrats.
Did you notice what I did there?
The endorsing convention doesn’t legally determine who appears on the general ballot. Remember, the primary election determines who each party’s actual candidate will be on the general ballot.
The endorsement at the state convention shows what the party would like, but is not legally binding. If the Republican endorsed at the convention is unopposed on the primary ballot, then the endorsed candidate goes onto the general ballot.
This is what usually happens.
Now that you understand a bit about ballots, conventions, and delegates, you can better understand Burgum’s announcement.
Burgum’s announcement today is that he is in it to win it. He will appear at the Republican state Convention, but if he doesn’t win the endorsement vote, he’ll go directly to the primary with his own set of signatures, bypassing the party and the delegates entirely. People who aren’t volunteers in the party – indeed, people who aren’t even Republicans, will get to vote for or against him to be the Republican Party’s candidate, because the primary voting is open to all voters, regardless of party.
That’s the current law.
It’s also what Kevin Cramer did to become our US Congressman, so Burgum’s move is not unprecedented.
Finally, to add a bit of personal experience on this explanation, I have lived in two different legislative districts in our great state. In both districts, I volunteered with the Republican Party, I became a delegate, and I went to the state convention.
When I moved to my current district, one of the first things I did was to try and get in touch with the district chair and ask, “how can I help?”
There are people who suppose that the State Republican Party elites decide who to endorse – perhaps in smoke filled rooms, as whiskey is sipped, and favors are traded.
It is true that I don’t always love our candidates, and it’s true that I’m not always happy with how party business gets done.
That doesn’t mean I take my ball and go home.
Because of our state’s small population and our non-professional legislative assembly, we have one of the most accessible, grass roots state governments in the country, and the state Republican Party is a huge part of that. I have friends who got involved in the state party a few years ago – the same time I did. Some of them are now district chairs and even elected state legislators. So, I mean it when I say: the state Republican Party is accessible to you. You could be one of the people deciding who the best Republican candidates in North Dakota are, and you could help them get elected. Or perhaps you’re the next great candidate, and we can help elect you?
So if you want to have a say in who the state Republican Party endorses –which often means who eventually wins state office – you don’t need to be elite. Get to know the Republicans in your district. Email your district chair and ask how you can get plugged in – I shared the link earlier.
You don’t have to be “elite”. All you have to do is show up and help.