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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published June 21 2010

North Dakota rules may be hindrance to third parties

BISMARCK – Richard Ames figured voter discontent with Democrats and Republicans would make it easy for him to get the primary votes he needed to run as a Libertarian for the North Dakota Senate this fall.

The Wahpeton factory manager was running unopposed in the Libertarian primary. He needed only 143 votes in the June 8 election to qualify as a November candidate in his district, which includes Wahpeton and eastern Richland County in North Dakota’s southeastern corner.

He got eight.

“I was seriously wrong,” he said.

North Dakota’s vote requirements in primary elections make it difficult for legislative candidates who aren’t Democrats or Republicans to run in the general election, and Ames, who is the North Dakota Libertarian Party’s state chairman, said a legal challenge is being considered.

Among states that have partisan primary elections, North Dakota is the only state in the country that has not had a third-party general election candidate for the Legislature since 1976, said Richard Winger, the publisher of Ballot Access News, a newsletter and website based in San Francisco.

“It sounds like they are just accustomed to having virtually never any competition outside the two major parties for the Legislature,” Winger said. “They ... are comfortable with it, so they sort of rationalize that this is a good thing.”

Ames’ anemic showing was the best among three Libertarian candidates who ran in North Dakota legislative primaries this month. Two Grand Forks candidates, Anthony Stewart and Thommy Passa, got six and four votes in their respective districts.

In North Dakota’s June elections, legislative and statewide candidates must get a minimum number of votes to qualify to run in the general election, even if they are unopposed in their own party’s primary.

Statewide hopefuls need at least 300 votes. In legislative races, the minimum varies by district; candidates must get votes equaling at least 1 percent of their district’s population.

Ames’ 1 percent minimum was 143 votes. Stewart, a Libertarian House candidate in Grand Forks’ District 17, needed at least 131. Passa, a House candidate in neighboring District 43, needed 133 votes.

Their single-digit results mean North Dakota will not have any Libertarian candidates for the Legislature this fall. All of the Democratic and Republican candidates who were on the primary ballot easily reached their minimum vote numbers.

“The goal of all of these laws is to keep the political power between the two major parties,” Ames said. “The system is designed so that you only have one shot.”

Libertarians had better luck in their statewide primaries. Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Keith Hanson, of West Fargo, got 535 votes, while tax commissioner candidate Richard Flattum-Riemers got 391. Both qualified to run against the Democratic and Republican candidates for those offices in November.

Ames believes if a political party goes through the work of qualifying for its own column on North Dakota’s ballot – as the Libertarian Party did by getting 7,000 petition signatures in the last year – its candidates shouldn’t need to get a minimum number of votes to qualify for the general election.

“We were the primary candidates for (the Libertarian Party). We were unopposed. If no one does a write-in, then that should be it,” Ames said.

Mark Schneider, North Dakota’s Democratic chairman, said the minimum primary vote requirements affect all candidates equally and “require them to demonstrate that they have at least a minimal amount of support.”

“At first blush, it doesn’t seem onerous to me,” Schneider said. “But this is certainly an issue that’s worthy of study. ... We always want to err on the side of inclusion.”

North Dakota’s GOP chairman, Gary Emineth, said he believed the vote minimums were justified. The statewide minimum of 300 votes could be raised because it is odd to require 130 votes or more for legislative candidates and only 300 for someone who is running statewide, Emineth said.

The minimum “forces those potential third parties to get organized statewide,” Emineth said. “If you can’t get 130 votes, you really aren’t much of a movement.”

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