Democrats sue to remove Trump from Minnesota ballot

It will be an uphill battle.

Minnesota DFL chair Ken Martin. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Minnesota DFL chair Ken Martin. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) has filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court seeking the removal of Donald Trump’s name from November’s ballot.

A range of experts ThinkProgress spoke with on Friday, however, expect Trump’s name to appear. In fact, one political scientist said he thinks the lawsuit could inspire the Republican base to get to work on behalf of Trump.

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In the suit, DFL chair Ken Martin alleges that the Minnesota Republican Party (MNGOP) didn’t follow the proper procedure for selecting electors and alternate electors as laid out in state statute. Electors are the people who actually elect the president in the Electoral College following the general election.

The statue in questions says, “Presidential electors and alternates for the major political parties of this state shall be nominated by delegate conventions called and held under the supervision of the respective state ventral committees of the parties of this state.” But when the MNGOP held its most recent delegate convention in May, party leadership didn’t elect alternate electors. Last month, MNGOP chair Keith Downey admitted to reporters that his party simply “forgot” to elect them.

With insufficient time to convene another convention before an August 27 deadline, the workaround MNGOP leadership came up with was to just appoint alternate electors themselves. But those alternate electors were appointed during a leadership meeting, not a delegate convention. Therefore, the DFL’s argument goes, the MNGOP’s process didn’t comply with state law. Nonetheless, the Minnesota secretary of state green-lighted Trump’s name appearing on the ballot shortly after the MNGOP submitted its list of alternate electors.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, Clinton currently leads Trump by about 10 points in Minnesota. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
According to a recent Washington Post poll, Clinton currently leads Trump by about 10 points in Minnesota. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

“It is apparent that clear errors occurred in the Republican process of selecting alternative electors for getting Donald Trump on the Minnesota ballot,” Martin said in a statement. “It is incumbent upon political parties to follow the rules binding our elections and in this instance it does not appear that the Minnesota Republican Party did so.”

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The lawsuit asks the court to direct the secretary of state “to decertify Trump and Pence from appearing on the ballot for the November 8, 2016, general election as candidates for President and Vice President, respectively.” But Derek Muller, an associate professor of law at Pepperdine specializing in elections, told ThinkProgress he thinks it’s ultimately very unlikely Trump’s name won’t appear on Minnesota’s ballot.

“There’s a judgement from the secretary of state that says ‘the Republican party has complied with the law,’ then you have Republicans who are saying ‘what we’ve done we think is in compliance with the law.’ So you have multiple actors, and the prospect of a court stepping in and saying ‘we’re going to remove a major party candidate because of alternate electors’ strikes me as quite unlikely,” Muller said.

While the MNGOP may not have followed proper procedure, statute doesn’t specify what the penalty for that is, so the possibility the Minnesota Supreme Court would step in and order Trump’s removal from the ballot seems remote, Muller added.

“The secretary of state is doing the best job you can do given ambiguities or uncertainties in the process,” he said. “We want parties and candidates to adhere to the rule of law, but in this case it’s an unfortunate gap in a process from a party that isn’t as careful as it should have been.”

The MNGOP is already trying to capitalize on the DFL’s lawsuit. In a statement, Downey — who made headlines this week after an audio recording surfaced of him saying Trump’s “imperial presidency” would be “a huge risk” — echoed one of Trump’s frequent talking points about the system being rigged:

“Donald Trump got on our ballot fair and square, and it is outrageous that the Democrat Party would actually try to rig the election this way… It sure smells bad when the Democrat Party petitions the Democrat Secretary of State to remove the Republican candidate from the presidential ballot. With Mr. Trump gaining strength every day and Hillary Clinton tanking in the polls, it appears Minnesota Democrats are very worried. In the end the Clinton machine’s blatant and frivolous attempt to disenfranchise so many Minnesota voters will backfire — it’s everything that people see wrong with politics.”

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, told ThinkProgress that he believes the lawsuit has the potential to backfire on Democrats.

Keith Downey. CREDIT: MNCD4Conservative
Keith Downey. CREDIT: MNCD4Conservative

“What it could do is take a candidate Trump who is otherwise not that popular among Republicans, and suddenly it might create some sympathy and strength for him,” Schultz said. But he added that Democrats might have reasons for filing the suit that go beyond wanting to remove Trump from the ballot.

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“I think what Dems are mostly hoping is that it’ll draw resources away that Republicans have for legislative or congressional races to this controversy, or perhaps take national money that now has to be spent to keep Trump on the ballot,” he said.

As far as the legalities go, Schultz noted that the Minnesota Supreme Court has a history of deferring to the major parties — such as when the court allowed Republicans to switch their gubernatorial candidate amid a sex scandal in 1990, or when it allowed Democrats to count absentee votes cast for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) as votes for his last-minute replacement, Walter Mondale, following Wellstone’s death in October 2002.

But in the unlikely event that the DFL’s lawsuit is successful, Larry Jacobs, chair for political studies at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs and a longtime observer of Minnesota politics, told ThinkProgress that the consequences for Republican incumbents in tight races like Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) and candidates like Stewart Mills, a Republican challenging Rep. Rick Nolan (D) in the Trump-friendly Iron Range area, could be immense.

“It’s going to have a devastating impact down ballot,” Jacobs said. “If you don’t have the top of the ticket it’s like a dagger to the heart, because you’re going to have a substantial numbers of people who will shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Why turn out?’”

Jacobs views the lawsuit in the context of Trump’s relative unpopularity in Minnesota — Trump finished third in the state Republican caucus behind Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Even if he makes it on the ballot, he’s not expected to beat Hillary Clinton. (Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Nixon in 1972.)

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“This is also a function of the Trump campaign because they’ve starved the state parties,” Jacobs said. “The presidential candidate infuses money into the state parties, the Minnesota Republican party is not only digging out of debt but its not gotten any significant support from Trump. He’s not raising money in the way presidential candidates usually do.”

“Elections are not just one-man affairs, which is the way Trump thinks about it. These are team efforts,” he added.

Julia Dayton Klein, an attorney who specializes in elections and political issues as principal at the Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty law firm, told ThinkProgress she expects the lawsuit to be resolved quickly, especially because early voting in Minnesota begins September 23. The Supreme Court already asked for both the DFL and MNGOP to submit arguments related to the case by the end of the day Friday.

“I think early next week we’ll have a summary order,” Dayton Klein said. “Sometimes when they’re in a great big hurry they’ll tell you in a quick summary order [what the court’s decision is] and they’ll write a big opinion later.”

UPDATE

As expected, on Monday, September 12, the Minnesota State Supreme Court ruled that Trump will not be removed from the ballot after all.

In short, Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea ruled that “we have declined to hear the election challenges on grounds of laches.” Laches is a doctrine applied to “prevent one who has not been diligent in asserting a known right from recovering at the expense of one who has been prejudiced by the delay.”

The delegate convention during which the MNGOP allegedly committed a procedural error in selecting alternate delegates occurred in May — Martin’s challenge wasn’t filed until September 8.

“[B]allot printing has already begun, 1,000,000 or more ballots have been printed, and recent statutory changes giving Minnesotans the right to vote early compress the timelines even further,” Gildea writes. “For example, early voting for the November general election, by mail and in-person, begins in just 11 days.”

In a statement, Martin said, “We are disappointed with the result today but respect the Supreme Court’s decision. We believe that we are on strong legal ground and that if this case were heard we would prevail upon the merits, but certainly understand the tight timeline issues addressed by the Court.”