In a few short months, ambitious but narrow DFL majorities in Minnesota's state Legislature have transformed the state's electoral system to their partisan advantage. This promises to make Minnesota reliably "blue" in future elections.
The first imperative for any political party can be defined simply: win elections. The long list of U.S. parties that became electoral failures — among them the Federalists, Whigs, Populists, Free Soil, New, Greenback and Reform parties — shows that this is a "do or die" proposition.
So the DFL "did." DFL legislators and their governor in the 2023 legislative session enhanced their chances of winning elections by changing elections laws.
The first norm that had to go was the pledge by past governors — Republican and DFL — that any electoral reforms had to have bipartisan support. The changes chronicled below, sponsored by the DFL, passed on party line votes. They are now part of our electoral structure — probably permanently.
Several measures alter the electorate to the advantage of the DFL:
- One elections law raises the legal requirement for major party status, which provides vital ballot access. To remain major parties, each of the two existing marijuana parties, along with any other third parties that come along, must now receive 8% of the total vote in a statewide election, a substantial increase from the previous 5% threshold. Given the passage of recreational marijuana legalization, the marijuana parties are likely to fall far short of the new threshold.
All this will move many voters from the state's two marijuana parties into the DFL electorate. Those two parties garnered 51,945 votes statewide in the 2022 gubernatorial election, 2.07% of all votes cast.
- Another new law allowing paroled felons to vote creates a constituency of more than 55,000 new voters likely to support the DFL.
In sum, the major party and felon legislation could produce more than 100,000 votes now trending toward the DFL.
Felons and marijuana users are not an unmixed blessing for the DFL. Felons likely reside heavily in already blue jurisdictions, limiting their impact on legislative and congressional races. But those votes will be quite useful in statewide races.
It remains to be seen how many of those legally owning up to two pounds of potent personal marijuana will be able to find their way to the polls.
- The elections bill also makes voter registration automatic when driver's licenses are renewed, offering the party 400,000 inactive citizens who might be persuaded to vote for the DFL, which has proved superior to the state GOP in voter outreach and registration.
The DFL majorities also passed laws widening the electoral pipeline of young voters into their party's ranks.
First, its elections law creates voluntary preregistration by 16- and 17-year-olds.
Second, the DFL-passed education bill requires all high schools to field an ethnic studies course that "analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social cultural and political forces, and the connection of race to other groups of stratification, including gender, class, sexuality, religion and legal status." Completion of this class will now fulfill the graduation requirement in social studies.
This is language fitting comfortably in a DFL Party platform but hotly disputed by many Republicans.
Add that framing and narrative in classrooms across the state to teen preregistration and you have enhanced a pipeline for future DFL voters.
So add it up. The DFL Legislature and governor have expanded the electorate to their likely advantage, created a new curricular and preregistration pipeline for shaping young DFL voters, and crushed those troublesome marijuana parties.
The feckless state GOP, deficient in funds and electioneering tactics, could only complain as all this occurred. Complaining doesn't win elections — which will be even harder for them in the future.
Washington journalist Jonathan Rauch once wrote: "In politics, the only distinction, finally, is between what you can get away with and what you can't." The DFL got away with a lot in the just-ended legislative session.
Steven Schier is the emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield.