By Jordon Greene | Free the Vote NC, President & Founder
On Election Day, the typical thought is that most voters think exclusively in terms of Republicans and Democrats. The good guys versus the bad guys as they would have it, no specific order intended. However, is it possible that every one of our nation’s 130 million voters or North Carolina’s 6 million voters see exclusively in these terms?
When you consider that over 25% of our state’s registered voters consider themselves or choose to be unaffiliated, it speaks volumes to the fact that not everyone is comfortable with being represented by the Republican and Democratic Parties regardless of how they may vote on election day. However, as several groups can attest, not all voices are welcomed with open arms in our state’s political discourse.
Just asks members of the Green and Constitution Parties whose party of choice is regularly denied access to our state’s election ballot by North Carolina’s ballot access laws. You may talk to members of newer political parties like the Modern Whig Party or individuals who have tried and failed to get on the election ballot as Unaffiliated (or Independent) candidate for different offices over the years. You could even ask members of the Libertarian Party, the only alternative party currently appearing on the ballot, because of the massive costs these laws have put on their party.
Kevin Hayes, a member of the Constitution Party of North Carolina’s State Executive Committee, said, “Minor parties or independents have to spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire petitioners just to get on the ballot and the split the vote myth kills petition efforts.” Kevin went on to state that due to the sheer amount of funds that alternative political parties and unaffiliated candidates have to expend for ballot access in relation to their already strained budgets that North Carolina’s ballot access laws “make it nearly impossible to compete even if a party gained ballot access.”
Alternative political parties that do manage to overcome North Carolina’s ballot regulations must work to maintain that access by obtaining at least two percent of the vote for either their candidate for Governor or President in the previous election. So just getting on the ballot is only the first step. If a party’s candidate does not obtain the required vote threshold they are then disqualified and forced to start the process over again. The Libertarians in North Carolina were put through this cycle election after election for nearly sixteen years until they managed to overcome the threshold in 2008 when their gubernatorial candidate, Dr. Mike Munger, a professor of political science at Duke University, obtained just over two percent of the vote.
While alternative parties have to cope with our state’s ballot laws, individuals who want to appear on the ballot as independent, or unaffiliated, candidates must go through the similar rigors of ballot access. Some candidates arguably have to do more when you consider the requirements for district offices covering only portions of the state. Brad Smith, a 2010 US Congressional candidate, and Bryan Greene, a 2008 US Congressional candidate, sought to provide the voters of the fifth and tenth districts, respectively, with an alternative to the major party candidates. However, neither candidate made it on the ballot, as neither could overcome what organizations such as Free the Vote North Carolina and ballot access expert Richard Winger say are possibly the nation’s most restrictive ballot access requirements for US Congressional candidates.
Mr. Smith said, “The current laws are completely unreasonable. For federal seats unless a person is willing to pay professional signature gatherers there is no way to meet their threshold.” Referring to the state’s legitimate interest in managing the ballot he mentioned that “[a] certain amount of due diligence is necessary but the State has gone far beyond that.”
Smith went on to state the “…problem is that ballot access is denied except for the rich …the shear amount of work involved day after day was tough, especially while working full time,” making grassroots candidacies burn out before they have a chance to get on the ballot.
Academics in North Carolina have also offered criticisms of our state’s ballot laws. In a statement published by the Free the Vote Coalition, Dr. Georg Vanberg, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies of the Political Science Department at UNC Chapel Hill stated that, “Vigorous political competition is critical to the quality of democracy.” He continued that “Only where established politicians and parties must contend with the potential for new parties and candidates to enter the political fray, and provide citizens with meaningful alternatives, can parties and politicians be held accountable to the will of the people.”
Duke University Professor of Political Science, Dr. Michael Gillespie said that, with less onerous ballot access laws, “Faced with greater competition for electoral support among their core constituencies, the major parties would be forced to be more responsive to voters and thus more democratic.”
On the other hand, the state argues that North Carolina has a legitimate interest in limited access to the election ballot. They cite issues such as voter confusion, long ballots and even administrative issues that they claim give the state the authority to trump the right to vote. However, this is in contravention an early United States Supreme Court ruling where the court said, “[n]o right is more precious… [than] the right to vote” in Williams v. Rhodes in 1968.
North Carolina State Representative Glen Bradley of Franklin, a Republican and sponsor of ballot access reform legislation in the 2011-2012 Session of the NC General Assembly said, “The purpose of regulating ballot access ought to be mostly if not solely to determine sincerity from fraud, and to stop the fraud.”
“Bringing North Carolina into compliance with most of the United States’ ballot access laws will not lead to ballot confusion, but to a more open marketplace of ideas, which the leadership of neither party really wants,” says Bradley in regards to North Carolina’s current ballot laws. “The state, being comprised of elected partisans, should on principle have no control over the parties that compose it. It is a direct conflict of interest. Like say the Widgetcorp Inc, CEO is elected Governor and gives his own company massive contracts and benefits; but instead of money we have allowed the parties to do this to our ballot.”
While the perfect legal requirement for ballot access may yet to have been seen, studies have shown that requirements like North Carolina’s 2% requirement for new political parties and 4% requirement for district level unaffiliated candidates are all too often nothing less than major-party only rules. Dr. Barry C. Burden, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a 2003 study entitled Ballot Regulations and Multiparty Politics in the States that “a requirement as high as 2% of the electorate would effectively eliminate all competition aside from the Democrats and Republicans.”
In consideration of the rights in danger and the effects on self-government of North Carolina’s ballot access laws it is apparent that there is an actual need for reform to allow free choice on the election ballot to restore legitimate and responsive government in our state.
You can learn more about this issue and take action at Free the Vote North Carolina, www.FreetheVoteNC.com