The Potluck

How an obscure election law at the center of 2nd district race turmoil came together

By: - September 25, 2020 3:05 pm
voting booth with instructions

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 06: Instructions directs voters at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, United States. Voters in Minnesota will be deciding the representatives who control the Senate, House, and governors’ seats. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 death less than two weeks before Election Day created an unprecedented situation for Minnesota election administrators  — but the tragedy wouldn’t spark a change in Minnesota election law until more than a decade later. 

Beth Fraser, a former deputy Secretary of State, recalls the discussions that shaped the eventual 2013 law that has been invoked this week after the sudden death of Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuna Now Party candidate who had been running for Congress in the 2nd District. 

“The challenge that we had when Wellstone died just before the election was that it was well into the election season, and thousands of Minnesotans had already cast absentee ballots for Wellstone or Coleman,” said Fraser, who served under former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. “All of the votes that were cast for Wellsone… did not count for the DFL candidate, and so all of those people were effectively disenfranchised.”

During the discussions in 2013, Fraser said one scenario was rejected by legislative and party leaders involved in the crafting of the bill. 

That option would have allowed the election to move forward as planned without changing the names of the candidates and allow the party to decide who would receive votes of the deceased. Hypothetically, that would have allowed people who wanted to vote for Walter Mondale, Wellstone’s replacement in 2002, to select Wellstone’s name; all the votes for Wellstone would be counted toward Mondale.

But party officials, Fraser said, rejected the option,fearing it would confuse voters who may not have readily understood that a vote for Wellstone, in this example, was a vote for Mondale. 

The reason for a February special election, Fraser said, was practical. Because of Minnesota election law, absentee ballots need to be mailed out at least 46 days before the general election. Holding a special election in December, for instance, could have meant two absentee ballots — one for a general election and one a special election — would be in circulation, further confusing voters. 

“February was chosen because it would provide enough time for preparing the ballots and having enough time for military and overseas voters to vote without any overlapping absentee ballot periods,” she said. 

Weeks’ death has thrown the 2nd District race into turmoil. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, who is facing off against GOP nominee Tyler Kistner, will have to vacate the seat in early January, leaving the 2nd District without congressional representation until the February special election.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.