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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and the state DFL Party this week defended a state law that allows political parties to determine the candidates that appear on their presidential primary ballots.

The issue came to a head in October when the Minnesota Republican Party submitted a ballot listing only the name of President Donald Trump.

The law has since been challenged on behalf of Lake Elmo voter James Martin and Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, a Minnesota businessman who wants to challenge Trump for the Republican Party nomination.

Court briefs filed by Simon, a Democrat, and the DFL Party paint state political parties as private entities that should be able to pick who appears on their presidential primary ballots. They cite the First and 14th Amendment principles of freedom of association.

Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing Martin and De La Fuente, has countered that the law governing how parties construct their taxpayer-funded primary ballots violates a Minnesota constitutional provision banning the Legislature “from granting any special or exclusive privilege to private corporations, associations or individuals.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on Jan. 9. Simon sought unsuccessfully to move up the hearing last month, arguing that unless the question over ballot access is settled “within the first few days of January,” election administrators may not have enough time to print and distribute ballots for the start of early voting on Jan. 17.

The March 3 Super Tuesday primary is Minnesota’s first presidential nomination primary since 1992. For the past six presidential nomination cycles, the state’s major parties pledged their delegates to their respective national conventions based on straw polls held at local caucuses.

Martin and De La Fuente filed their petition on Dec. 13 after the state Republican Party informed Simon’s office that only Trump would be included on the GOP primary ballot. Republican Party officials later allowed for a write-in option.

The DFL Party, meanwhile, told Simon’s office that it will have 15 candidates and an option to select “Uncommitted” on its primary ballot.

David Maeda, director of elections for Simon’s office, said the possible disruption to the primary from the pending legal challenge could cost “many thousands of dollars.”

If a new statewide Republican primary ballot is ordered, he wrote, automated voting systems that count ballots and help voters with disabilities “will require extensive reprogramming and testing” before voting can commence.

Maeda wrote that election officials also will not likely be able to prepare new absentee ballots by Jan. 17, affecting thousands of Minnesotans serving in the military or otherwise trying to cast votes abroad. The 46-day window is already a challenge, Maeda wrote: In 2018, more than 12% of the 6,076 absentee ballots cast from abroad were rejected because they did not arrive by Election Day.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755