Doug Stuber, campaign coordinator for the Green Party of North Carolina, looks toward the political horizon and sees a day that holds great promise for his party, a day when the Greens can finally begin to stake a claim in this state.
That day is Nov. 8, 2000. The day after nationwide elections.
"We'll get right back out on the streets and start the petition drive for 2004," Stuber says, already gearing up for another round against the two-party system that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader calls "a form of incarceration."
Stuber, a 42-year-old teacher and former journalist who has lived in Chapel Hill for two years, has good reason to look forward to a fresh start. This campaign season has helped the Greens shake the bars of the present two-party trap--"We're totally invigorated by the Nader campaign," Stuber insists--but six months of trying, and failing, to fulfill stringent N.C. ballot-access requirements have left the party with stark indications of how far it has to go to become a viable third-party option.
The Greens' latest bout with the balloting process brought a difficult, if not unexpected, legal setback. On Aug. 9, U.S. District Judge Earl Britt in Raleigh ruled against the party's bid to secure a spot on North Carolina ballots for the ticket of Nader and vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke.
"The court cannot conclude that it would be in the public interest to require the state to place Nader on the ballot as a Green Party candidate when plaintiffs have not shown even a minimal level of support for the Green Party within North Carolina," Britt wrote in his ruling.
Any effort to show such support is impeded by unfair, discriminatory and perhaps unconstitutional balloting regulations, the Greens argued in their failed lawsuit against the N.C. Board of Elections. North Carolina's statutes are especially onerous, raising some of the toughest hurdles in the nation for a small party struggling to gain a toehold in the electoral system.
For a new party to gain ballot status in this state, it must obtain the signatures and addresses of 51,423 registered voters (2 percent of the number of statewide voters in the last general election)--the second highest requirement in the country. The effective deadline for turning in the signatures, May 17, was also the earliest in the country.
"This combination places an undue, unreasonable, and unjustified burden on minor parties seeking ballot access," the lawsuit stated. The obstacles faced by would-be challengers "operate to freeze the political status quo and favor the two established political parties."
The barriers aren't insurmountable. Both the Reform Party and the Libertarian Party, which launched their campaigns earlier than the Greens and with greater resources, successfully petitioned for spots on the November ballot in North Carolina.
The N.C. Greens, which didn't start gathering signatures until March, pulled together only 2,000 valid signatures by the deadline. They had collected thousands more names than that, but there was a problem.
College campuses provide a fertile petitioning ground, Stuber says; the party obtained most of its early signatures there. However, the students were recent transients, and often listed the county where they lived but not where they last voted. Incorrect county-of-registration information invalidates signatures, a lesson the N.C. Greens learned the hard way when their 5,400 collected names were whittled down to 2,000 officially valid ones.
"We're petitioning harder than ever now," Stuber says. The party has collected about 15,000 signatures, and hundreds of volunteers are still petitioning, despite the failed lawsuit.
The Greens' efforts could still pay off. Britt's ruling is presently being appealed by attorneys from the Brennan Institute for Justice, a New York University School of Law-based group that has tackled such high-profile electoral-access cases as Sen. John McCain's successful attempt to gain entree to the New York Republican primary this year. The appeal seeks an extension of the filing deadline to the end of this month, which would give the Greens one last shot at a ballot listing.
"If we have through August 30, that will give us a mad-dash two weeks on the college campuses to get all of the activists back in the fold and to petition on campus," Stuber says. At UNC-Chapel Hill alone, Stuber estimates that his volunteers can sign up as many as 15,000 students.
Even if the appeal does not succeed, "it remains for us to run a very solid write-in campaign," Stuber says. Without the crucial ballot slot, Stuber thinks the Greens can still convince at least five percent of North Carolina voters to write in Nader.
Even such a small showing could make an important contribution to the Greens' national party-building efforts. The percentage of the popular vote Nader can swing will still matter, even in states where he doesn't win. (So far, the Green ticket has secured listings on 37 state ballots, and the Nader campaign expects to gain access to several more before election day.)
"You know, I think it's a myth that Ralph Nader can't win, actually," Stuber says, departing for a moment from his more reserved expectations. "All he has to do is win five or six states, and then the rest of the states do their job of coming close to five percent or more, and then the Green Party will have their five percent nationwide, and when we have that, we'll be right in the thick of full federal funding."
With federal matching funds, the Green Party can make its best showing yet in the next elections. Voting for a loser in 2000 will help set the stage for a stronger run in 2004, Stuber says.
For the time being, local Greens know that they face a more basic challenge than winning the White House: making N.C. voters aware that this leftist foray into electoral politics is serious and here to stay.
"People aren't aware that there actually is a champion of the people running," says Holly Tuten, 20, of Chapel Hill, a Green Party volunteer. "As we all know, he's not going to get elected this time around," she says, "but there's this slow process of garnering more support each time around."
Once the word gets out about the Green ticket, the party must still overcome concerns voiced by progressive voters who would abandon the Democrats and vote Nader--but only if the Republicans do not benefit. A vote for Nader, they say, is a de facto vote for Bush.
"The response to that is simple," Stuber says. "We only get to vote in one state. And in North Carolina, right now, the latest polls show that Gore is between 12 and 15 percentage points behind Bush. So, will Nader's 1 to 5 percent--and I'm willing to say that we'll get more than 5 percent--but will Ralph Nader's 5 percent in this state be the 5 percent that sways the vote to George Bush in North Carolina? The answer is no, it won't. Even if we took all those votes from absolute Gore supporters, it's not going to sway the vote."
But what if Gore moves within striking distance in this state? During a May visit to the Triangle, Nader told The Independent that it's time to send a message by jumping from the Democratic ship--whatever the implications for the Gore campaign.
"We want the Democrats to lose, with the explanation that they weren't progressive enough," Nader said. "They need a four-year cold shower to wake up."
Winona LaDuke will be the keynote speaker at the Oct. 5 awards dinner for NC Equity, a women's public policy group, which will be held at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in RTP. For more information, call NC Equity at 783-8088.