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Ballot access battle

Crashing the party: Stiff requirements for ballot still in place for third parties

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Attention Republicans and Democrats: You're still in power. After a year of litigation, the Green and Libertarian parties are still mired in a lawsuit over the number of signatures required for third parties to be listed on the North Carolina ballot. Last week, Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback Jr. told the small but packed Wake County courtroom that "personally I think 5,000 or 10,000 signatures should be enough, but the legislature hasn't seen that it's sufficient." He chose not to rule on the constitutionality of the state ballot access law, and instead sent the case to trial. A date hasn't been set, but the lawsuit is expected to be heard in March. (You can download court documents from the lawsuit at the end of this article.)

A year ago, the state Green and Libertarian parties sued the State Board of Elections, contending that North Carolina's ballot access laws are unconstitutional. North Carolina has among the most restrictive regulations in the country; it requires third parties to collect 70,000 petition signatures of currently registered voters, a number equivalent to 2 percent of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election. However, canvassers collect at least 100,000 signatures because inevitably local boards of election challenge the validity of some signatures and toss them out.

The party must also receive 2 percent of the vote in order to stay on the ballot.

In addition, noted attorney Michael Crowell, representing the Libertarians, the number of required signatures will continue to increase as North Carolina's population grows. "The evil of the 2 percent is that it will keep going up," he argued in court.

States with 2 percent signature requirements: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Kansas, Idaho, New Jersey, North Carolina, Arizona

States with more stringent signature requirements: South Dakota (2.5 percent), Alabama (3 percent), Maine (5 percent), Oklahoma (5 percent), Ohio (5 percent), South Carolina (5 percent)
The Libertarian Party has placed a candidate on the ballot several times, most recently, in 2004. However, it is expensive to hire professional canvassers—usually more than 200—to conduct the statewide petition drive, about $1 per signature.

Robert Elliot, cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Greens and the Libertarians, which have elected officials in other states, "aren't going away. They have a platform of ideas and are two legitimate political parties."

Libertarian candidate Michael Munger is running for governor, but unless the party can collect the required number of signatures, his name will not appear on the ballot. Voters can write in his name.

Green Party member Gray Newman was elected to the Mecklenberg County Soil and Water District Conservation Board in 2002. However, it was a non-partisan race, so he was not listed on the ballot as a Green Party member.

The state argued that lowering the bar on ballot access requirements would invite rogue parties to run, thus cluttering the ballot and confusing voters. Nonetheless, from 1929 to 1981, parties had to collect just 10,000 signatures; in one election cycle, the limit was reduced to 5,000. Only in the early '80s, when the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party appeared on the ballot, did the state legislature pass a law upping the requirements.

Alec Peters of the N.C. Attorney General's office countered that North Carolina elects upwards of 10 executive offices, which already crowds the ballot. "The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states have an interest in avoiding ballot confusion and clutter."

However, Crowder noted that candidates shouldn't be penalized "because we have a long ballot."

Peters pointed out that several states have set 2 percent to 5 percent signature thresholds. "That requirement is constitutional," Peters said, citing rulings in other court cases. "Whether a different requirement may be set is a matter of policy. The courts can't get into the business of deciding the cutoff."

Yet, it is unlikely that Republicans and Democrats would allow a third party to gain enough traction to shed votes from them. In 2006, House Bill 88 wound through the General Assembly, which would have eased the ballot access restrictions. It was co-sponsored by several Republicans and Democrats including state Reps. Paul Luebke of Durham County and Jennifer Weiss and Paul Stam of Wake County. After passing the House and Senate, it was killed in the wee hours, shortly before it was passed.

Download court documents from the ballot access lawsuit:

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