Matt Evans: North Dakota's Voting Laws Undermine Political Parties


North Dakota has an interesting mix of laws regarding voting and political parties. For instance, North Dakota is the only state in the United States with no voter registration. (A hobby of mine is to point this out when political pollsters call and ask me if I am registered to vote.)

In other states, you register ahead of time to vote, and that includes your party affiliation, if any. You can change your party affiliation later, but the state government knows what political party you most recently supported. In North Dakota, however, the state has no idea what party you’re normally part of. This would normally be irrelevant, except for during Primary Elections.

The Primary Election determines which candidates will represent each party on the general election ballot.

The way it is supposed to work is that the Republicans choose who the Republican candidate should be, the Democrats choose who the democrat candidate should be, and so on.

In North Dakota, anyone can vote in anyone else’s primary.

If you’re scratching your head, you should be. In North Dakota, all of the eligible voters in the state can vote to decide who the Republican candidate on the general election ballot should be.

For instance, in the upcoming Governor’s race, the Republican candidate is being challenged on the primary ballot. The official gubernatorial candidate of the North Dakota Republican Party is current attorney general Wayne Stenehjem. He won a three way race at the state convention.

One of his three opponents chose not to abide by the outcome of the state party convention, and is challenging to be the “real” Republican candidate on the primary ballot. That candidate is Doug Burgum.

The Republican party of North Dakota has spoken – Stenehjem is the candidate. But state law currently says something else – it says that voters can choose who the Republican party’s candidates should actually be – and that what the party members think is irrelevant.

The primary ballot you see is going to have two names on it for Republican Candidate: Wayne and Doug. Both of them are going to have “Republican” or “R” next to their names. But only one of them is actually the choice of the Republican party. Doug may or may not have values that he thinks are Republican, but when he asked the Republican party to endorse him, they didn’t.

It’s kind of bizarre that he gets to call himself a Republican candidate.

Now, interestingly, because we have no voter registration, it is not just the Republican voters in North Dakota who get to decide who the Republican candidate should be. It is _all_ voters in North Dakota – anyone can vote in anyone else’s primary.

This is especially pertinent this year. Doug Burgum is more socially liberal than the members of the state Republican party. Some of his ideas about taxes and spending are at odds with the state party.

Many people have asked why he didn’t run as a Democrat or an Independent to start with. He’s quite popular with democrats and independents in the Red River valley.

But at the Republican state convention, he was a very distant last place out of the three choices.

On the primary ballot, it won’t just be Republicans choosing the best Republican candidate – it will be democrats and independents also. Will non-Republican votes override what the Republican party already decided back in April?

To be clear, I have no problem at all with Doug Burgum, and I have no problem at all with him running for governor.

I do have a big problem with democrats choosing who the Republican candidate should be. And I have a problem with how state law currently lets any eligible voter completely nullify the endorsed candidates of each political party. And I have a problem with how state law lets anyone call themselves any party affiliation they like. Currently, Hillary Clinton could call herself the Republican candidate for governor. Nothing stops her.

The Republicans have already spoken – Stenehjem is our choice (Rick Becker was my personal choice, but the party has rules, and they were followed. Stenehjem won).

I’d like to see Doug Burgum on the ballot – as an independent, or, had he worked with any other political party – as one of the other party’s candidates.

There’s another angle to this, however. It’s not just that I don’t want Democrat voters choosing Republican candidates. I also want political parties and conventions to actually meaning something. What’s the point of having a convention and endorsing candidates if the endorsement will just be overridden on the primary ballot?

I’ve gone to the last three Republican state party conventions. Many people have gone to many more. I’ve donated time and money to the state party. I’ve given up time with my family.

In short, I’ve got some skin in the Republican game.

There’s little point for me to continue to invest my time and money in the party at the state level if people with no skin in the game can just overrule the party’s decisions.

If we’re going to have political parties, then they should mean something. They should matter. If you want to choose the Republican candidate, you should have to show up and help the Republican party.

What we have now just doesn’t make sense. If we’re going to have Political Parties and Primary Challenges, we probably need Voter Registration. If we’re going to have Open Primary Challenges and no voter registration, there’s little point in having political parties.

But what I actually want is something even easier.

We should just have political parties. No primary challenges, and no voter registration.

Here’s what I propose:

Political Parties in our state should own their names. A party name should work something like a trademark. Each party is on file with the state election office as the official owner of their party’s name & brand. Therefore, nobody gets to call themselves the “Democrat” or “Republican” on any literature or on any ballot, unless the corresponding political party allows it.

The way the parties would allow that would be what they do today – they send over their list of endorsed candidates to the elections office. Those endorsed candidates are the ONLY candidates that can claim to be affiliated with that party.

This would make contested primaries impossible. When the Republican party endorses a candidate for an office, that is the Republican candidate. No primary challenge, no funny business with other people calling themselves Republicans candidates, and no funny business with other people calling themselves Republican primary voters.

Additionally, this scheme doesn’t require voter registration. If people want to choose the Republican candidate, they get involved with the Republican party. The party is responsible for vetting and credentialing people who want to participate in party politics.

This might strike some people as making the big parties too powerful. The people should still have an ability to send a strong message that the parties are picking bad candidates, and to vote for a protest candidate.

What mechanisms can we use for that?

Well, it would still be easy for people to get on the ballot as an independent – 300 signatures is all you need today. We’d leave that requirement alone, or perhaps even lessen it a bit, to make sure people are comfortable that the big parties aren’t shutting out other great candidates.

Also, there are some laws that give the “big two” parties some automatic ballot access advantages. This makes it harder for Libertarian or Green or other parties to get all their candidates on the general election ballot. I think we could relax those requirements a little, so that is is easier for 3rd parties to field candidates and get them on the ballot.

In short, a proposal substantially similar to this one has the following advantages:

  • reduces the government cost of running elections, by largely eliminating primary elections
  • doesn’t introduce voter registration
  • pushes the responsibility onto each political party to make sure the candidates and the voters who want to be involved in that party are actually aligned with the goals of that party
  • doesn’t let people “cross the line” and spoil other party’s primary elections
  • makes it easier for 3rd parties to field candidates
  • gives the general election voter a clear way to support candidates that the major parties have overlooked.

I don’t know if Burgum will win the primary election or not. And in a way, I don’t blame him for what he’s doing. He’s taking full advantage of what state law allows.

That’s why we should fix the laws.