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Patrick Springer, Published February 11 2014

Harley McLain, whose challenge led to ND ballot reform, dies at age 62

FARGO – Harley McLain, long a fixture on North Dakota ballots as an independent candidate, never won statewide office. But he had lasting success in the courtroom in influencing the state’s politics.

McLain, of Valley City, who died Sunday at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, is remembered for winning a federal lawsuit that forced the state to rotate ballot position so no party had an advantage in the order of listing candidates.

The ruling, from a federal appeals court, followed McLain’s independent candidacy for Congress in 1980.

Before McLain prevailed in his lawsuit, North Dakota determined the order of candidates according to the number of votes each party received in the previous election, a practice struck down as unfair.

The son of a Congregational minister, McLain was an organic farmer, a musician and the father of three children. He died at age 62.

He ran for a succession of offices beginning in the 1970s, including a bid for the U.S. House in 1978 and for the U.S. Senate and presidency in 1984.

“He was largely a one-issue candidate and that issue was organic farming,” said Tracy Potter, an active Democrat who became friends with McLain. “He was tilting at windmills, but he was doing it with a great deal of humor.”

By getting the federal courts to mandate the rotation of candidates’ names on election ballots, McLain helped to make North Dakota elections fairer, Potter said.

McLain was able to tout the accomplishment and persuaded the University of North Dakota to grant him a semester of free tuition, Potter said.

“He was a free spirit, certainly,” he added. “He didn’t identify with the establishment in any way.”

McLain believed that neither of the two major political parties was really addressing the issues important in peoples’ lives, and wanted to present them with an alternative, said Lynn Wolff of Fargo, a longtime friend.

“He wanted people to know that there was another way, that maybe political parties were too set in their ways,” Wolff said.

Besides his interest in organic farming and music, McLain was very interested in alternative medicine and health foods, Wolff said.

In fact, his three children said they knew little of their father’s political involvement, but all acquired an appreciation for music from him.

“He was a big influence on me and a lot of others musically,” said his son, Matt McLain of Valley City, whose father taught him how to play the guitar and encouraged him to pursue his interest in music.

“I knew my dad as my dad,” said Molly McLain. “His character was seeing truth and always trying to do right. His mission was social justice. He was an idealist. He definitely was radical in his thinking.”

McLain’s other daughter, Mira, said her father’s wit came through with his frequent jokes and in the lyrics of his songs.

“Every day was just so fun and such an adventure,” she said. “He kind of wrote the soundtrack to my youth with his music.”

McLain was preceded in death by his wife, Julie.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Congregational United Church of Christ Church in Valley City. Visitation will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at the church and one hour before the memorial service. A prayer service also will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the church.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522