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Third party candidate who sparked ballot change dies
Harley McLain

Third party candidate who sparked ballot change dies


Harley McLain, a perennial third party candidate who sparked a change in the state’s election laws, died Sunday at the age of 62.

McLain ran for several offices in the late ’70s through the ’90s — a run for U.S. House in 1978, for president and U.S. Senate in 1984, for state agriculture commissioner in 1988 and for governor in ’92, among others.

He ran under third parties he created like the National Peoples League and Chemical Farming Banned parties. He unsuccessfully tried to get his name listed under the party name of $11.71 Wheat Party in his bid for ag commissioner, a reference to his platform of farmers getting parity, or $11.71 per bushel at the time, for wheat.

Most notably, McLain won his battle to reform North Dakota election ballots. McLain filed a lawsuit in the late ’70s, alleging the state’s ballots favored candidates from the two major parties.

His suit was initially dismissed by a North Dakota judge, but his appeal to federal court found in his favor. The ballots were ruled unconstitutional and the state moved to the ballots used now, which rotate which candidates are listed first.

“That’s remarkable,” longtime friend Tracy Potter, who is running for the Democratic endorsement for Senate in Bismarck’s District 35, said of this achievement.

He had fun with the democratic system, Potter said, and made a difference along the way.

McLain was an organic farmer near Valley City for many years and one of the first in North Dakota to be a vocal proponent of organic farming.

Outside of his role trying to effect political change, McLain was a loving father and husband. His wife, Julie, who died several years ago, “was the love of his life,” said their daughter Molly McLain.

“He was a great man, that’s for sure, and a great dad,” she said. “And I think he was ahead of his time in many ways.”

He was also a lover of theater, music — especially folk music — and humor, qualities he passed on to his three children. He was actually a better musician than people gave him credit for, Potter said.

His music was the soundtrack of her childhood, said Mira McLain. He would often play her favorite songs for her birthdays when she was younger while she and her friends would dance, she said.

“I always had the best birthdays growing up,” she said.

He was a jokester, with a particular love of a good pun, up until the end, Molly McLain said.

He was taken to Sanford Health in Fargo with a problem with his heart. When he was revived, he told his daughter, “Well, I sang my heart out.”

He died a few days later.

“Everyday with him was really an adventure,” Molly McLain said.

Harley McLain is survived by his three children, Molly, 31, Mira, 25, and Matthew, 21.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Congregational United Church of Christ Church in Valley City. Visitation will be 5-7 p.m. Friday at the church and one hour before the service on Saturday. A prayer service will also be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the church.

Reach Hannah Johnson at 701-250-8251 or


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