ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A Minnesota federal judge held a hearing on the fate of a hotly contested congressional seat on Wednesday morning as candidates debated the validity of a state law that postpones elections in the event of a candidate’s death.
Democratic incumbent Angie Craig sued to overturn the law after the death of third-party candidate Adam Weeks triggered a special election for her seat in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District.
At a hearing on Craig’s motion for a temporary injunction on Wednesday, attorneys for the congresswoman, Republican opponent Tyler Kistner and Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon debated whether the statute was preempted by federal law.
Attorney Kevin Hamilton, representing Craig, argued to U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright that Weeks’ death, while tragic, did not fall under either of two exceptions to the federal law setting Election Day on Nov. 3.
“Nothing prevents the election from occurring on Nov. 3,” Hamilton said. “The election is underway already.”
While federal law requires special elections in the case of a vacancy in office and allows it in exigent circumstances, the death of a candidate doesn’t meet either of those thresholds, he argued.
“Candidates die all the time. Elections go forward,” Hamilton said. “Often times, the dead candidate actually wins… the voters aren’t disenfranchised, their vote actually counts. And if a dead candidate wins, there’s a vacancy and then a special election.”
Attorney Rondell LeBeau, representing Kistner, and Assistant Attorney General Nathan Hartshorn disagreed. They cited three major cases: Public Citizen v. Miller, in which the Supreme court upheld a Georgia law requiring runoff elections in cases where the victor received less than 50% of the vote; Purcell v. Gonzalez, in which the high court recommended against making changes to election law on the eve of an election; and Busbee v. Smith, in which a federal court allowed for a delay in elections in light of violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Both LeBeau and Hartshorn argued that the state has the right to determine what constitutes a failure to elect a representative.
“Minnesota has the right to say that an election between one or more candidates who are living and one who is deceased is a failure to elect,” Hartshorn said. “If plaintiffs get the relief they’re seeking, the Legal Marijuana Now Party will be denied their right to run a viable candidate for office, and their voters will be denied the right to vote for a candidate from their party.”
“Mr. Weeks died. That’s the exigent circumstance that occurred, and that exigency, then fell onto state statute, and is creating the failure to elect,” he said. “The state is recognizing exigency. Nothing in the federal law prevents the state from recognizing that.”
Judge Wright, a Barack Obama appointee, probed each party on the exceptions but remained relatively quiet throughout the telephone hearing.
Weeks, the 2nd District candidate for the Legal Marijuana Now Party, died suddenly on Sept. 21. The cause of his death has not been made public.
Simon announced Weeks’ death in a Sept. 24 statement, in which he also set a special election for the seat on Feb. 9 under a state law requiring a special election when a major-party candidate dies within 79 days of an election.
A Democrat-dominated state government passed the statute in 2013, citing the death of popular Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone as the legislation’s major motivating factor. Wellstone’s death in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 Senate election led to his last-minute replacement on the ballot by former Vice President Walter Mondale, who lost to Republican Norm Coleman. Simon, then a member of the Minnesota House, was one of the law’s early champions.
The Legal Marijuana Now Party did not make an appearance at Wednesday’s hearing, but co-chair Tim Davis voiced his party’s opposition to Craig’s suit in a declaration filed Tuesday. The party, he wrote, had selected Weeks as its candidate in an effort to capitalize on the 17,000 votes it had received from 2nd District voters for its 2018 auditor candidate. They now plan to pursue that goal with a new candidate, Paula Overby.
Overby lost this year’s Democratic primary for one of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats to incumbent Tina Smith, and previously ran for the 2nd District seat as a member of the Independence Party in 2014 and 2016.
“If Representative Craig were to succeed in its lawsuit, it would impact LMNP and our voters greatly, as well as other third parties around the state,” Davis wrote in his declaration. “Elections give parties like LMNP an opportunity to get issues in front of voters and the other major parties. Without the opportunity provided by the special election statute due to the passing of Mr. Weeks, LMNP will be unable to have the same opportunity to get its issues in front of voters.”
Marijuana legalization in Minnesota was a hot topic in 2018, when Democrat Tim Walz won the gubernatorial race on a platform that prominently featured legalization. Republican leaders in the state Senate drew a hard line against recreational legalization, and the issue has faded into the background at the state capitol as Covid-19 concerns take center stage.
Meanwhile, the state’s two marijuana-legalization parties, LMNP and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, both attained major party status in 2018. That status, Democrats worry, has allowed Republicans to infiltrate the smaller parties and use them as wedges in tight races.