Legislation Could End North Dakota’s Open June Primary, Which Is Good in Principle but Could Be Bad for Republicans in Practice


The NDGOP convention opens with the National Anthem on Saturday, April 2, 2016 in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Do most voters understand how candidates end up on the ballot in November?

I’m not sure they do, and perhaps they can’t be blamed. Here in North Dakota, the process is a little convoluted.

The political parties – Republicans, Democrats, sometimes even the Libertarians – hold a series of conventions to endorse candidates. First there are local conventions in the various legislative districts to endorse the party’s local candidates and to choose delegates to state conventions. Those statewide delegates then choose the candidates to represent the party on the statewide ballot.

But all of this a bit of a moot exercise thanks to North Dakota law which mandates an open statewide primary in June to decide the candidates. A primary anyone can enter just by collecting some signatures, and it doesn’t matter if they were endorsed by their party’s convention or even have anything to do with the political party they’re seeking the nomination for at all. Even candidates who are specifically rejected at a political party’s state convention can go on to become the party’s candidate by winning the June primary.

That’s what Senator-elect Kevin Cramer did in 2012 when skipped the NDGOP’s spring convention and won the nomination for the U.S. House race in June. Governor Doug Burgum came in third place at the NDGOP’s state convention in 2016, but crushed convention-endorsed candidate Wayne Stenehjem on the June ballot.

Now some Republicans are looking at changing this. They want the method for choosing their candidates to be up to the party, not state law, as John Hageman reports:

BISMARCK — Leaders of the North Dakota Republican Party will consider endorsing a law change next week that would allow the state’s political parties to avoid bitter intraparty primary election battles.

The GOP State Committee is scheduled to vote on the resolution Thursday, Dec. 13, a few weeks after its rules committee approved it. John Trandem, chairman of the party’s rules committee, said the proposed change would give parties more flexibility on how they nominate their candidates for the general election ballot, allowing them to use a caucus or convention of its members rather than a primary election open to all of the state’s voters.

Trandem said current state law compels political parties to “essentially confer voting rights to anyone, regardless of their political affiliation.” He argued party nominations should be an organization’s private function, unlike a general election open to the public.

As a matter of principle, Trandem is right. Republicans should choose how their party endorses candidates, not an open primary where anyone can vote regardless of their actual political affiliation. The same should be true of all political parties, because these parties are private organizations. Twitter doesn’t get a say in who the CEO of Facebook is. The NRA doesn’t get a vote in who leads the Brady Campaign.

That said, a word of caution for Republicans, who as I’ve already pointed out have seen two of their most successful candidates in recent years either skip the convention or lose the endorsement there. While I understand wanting to ensure that Republicans choose who the Republican candidates will be, replacing the status quo with a more closed off process could hurt the party.

If North Dakota does away with the June primary vote, I would hope Republicans (and the other political parties) would continue to do some sort of a statewide balloting to ensure the candidates they choose are representative of all Republicans and not just those who show up to state conventions.