Doc, Elvis or Santa: When is a nickname OK on ballot?

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2010 - 8:52 PM

So, is the "Doc" in or out?

We'll know soon whether Dan Severson, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, can appear on the ballot using a nickname he claims was his Navy fighter handle.

Carol Weiler, an artist and activist from Sartell, Minn., has asked the state Supreme Court to prevent Severson, of Sauk Rapids, from using "Doc" as his middle name on the ballot. He hasn't used the name in decades, personally or legally, Weiler said, and its use could confuse voters.

I'll admit I'm pretty confused, but not about Doc. I'm confused about how many voters will actually think they're voting for the octogenarian former band leader on the "Tonight Show," whose last name is spelled Severinsen and who, while still performing occasionally in Minnesota, resides in Mexico. Confusing? Really?

I know. The law is clear that the name of candidates "shall not appear on a ballot in any way that gives the candidate an advantage over an opponent, including words descriptive of the candidate's occupation, qualifications, principles, or opinions, except as otherwise provided by law."

The problem is that last clause. Subjective exceptions pop up all the time. Remember the state Senate race in Hennepin County where a guy wanted to be on the ballot as "Santa Claus" because he looked like the cheery fellow? It didn't fly due to the potential for unfair advantage. But Elvis impersonator Todd "Elvis" Anderson does get to use his moniker as running mate to gubernatorial candidate Ole Savior.

Alan Weinblatt, the St. Paul lawyer who is representing Weiler, says the Severson matter is a clear-cut case of dishonesty. "It's sneaky," Weinblatt said.

Severson, a Republican who is taking on incumbent Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, must be put on the ballot by his or her given name, Weinblatt said. Over the years of running for office, Severson has done just that, using Dan or Daniel when filing.

"This is not an accident," Weinblatt said, adding that "Doc" is likely to confuse older voters in particular, who are fans of the jazz trumpeter.

Severson counters that he's long been known by both Dan and Doc, the latter a nickname he was given during his military service in the 1980s. "Doc brings that part of my history into the race," he said, "and it's the right thing to do. I could understand the push-back if I was just using Doc, but it's Dan 'Doc' Severson. This is a statewide race and more people know me as Doc."

Weinblatt recalls other ballot dust-ups where the Minnesota Supreme Court nixed names. Nope to Shelvie "Prolife" Rettmann, formerly a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Nope, too, to Patrick "Family Farmer" O'Reilly, a Canby cattleman who ran for Congress. Rats and rats. As a person who votes in every election including dog catcher, I would find these clues sooooo helpful.

Besides, who's to say if a name helps or hurts? If it helps, Richard Petty, the NASCAR Hall of Famer, would have been a shoo-in for secretary of state in North Carolina. But he lost. And what if, say, you got lousy service at the store formerly known as Dayton's? What if Elvis' music raises your pulse, but not in a good way?

Weinblatt doesn't see it this way. "The law and the citizenry can be hurt if the Supreme Court doesn't step in here," he said. "The law cares because the society in which we live likes honesty in lots of places, including on the ballot."

Honestly, the only way I see to combat potential trickiness is with the supremely fair and immutable advantage presented to us before every election large and small. It's called Asking Questions. It looks something like this:

Dear Doc/Elvis/Santa Claus/George Clooney:

I am your constituent and I vote. While I smile/recoil at the fact that you share the name of my favorite/most reviled official/entertainer/bearded man, we both know that asking for the public's trust is serious business, humbling and noble and generally not lucrative like those waitperson jobs. I applaud you but, before you get my vote, I need to understand where you stand on the issues that are important to me. How do we close the education gap, balance the budget, fight homelessness, create jobs, protect our children from abuse, guard our state's glorious natural resources, find common ground as an alternative to our country's progressively uncivil discourse?

Doc/Elvis/Santa Claus/George, I need to know what you stand for. I need to know what issues keep you up at night and how you might fix them.

I eagerly await your reply.

Yours,

Rosebud

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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