Could independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader be on the North Carolina ballot this year? Even as the Kerry-Edwards ticket works to turn us into a "battleground" state--one the Bush-Cheney side can no longer take for granted, in other words--along comes a federal district court decision that could, maybe, open the door to a Nader alternative here.
Ruling on a legal challenge to the state's ballot-access laws by a Winston-Salem man who wanted to run as an independent candidate for the Senate two years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Bullock declared the rules for independent candidates unconstitutional, and he threw them out.
So, can Nader's folks now waltz into the State Board of Elections and say, "Put our Ralph's name on the ballot?"
Not so fast, says Gary Bartlett, executive director of the SBOE. The deadline's already come and gone for independent candidates (it was June 25), and Nader missed it; Bullock's ruling, therefore, is only prospective, meaning it applies to elections after 2004, not during.
If the Nader campaign doesn't agree, Bartlett says, they're free to appeal to the five-member Board of Elections itself or go to court. But they'd better hurry up--the state will start printing ballots shortly after the August 17 runoff elections are over, he adds, in order to have them ready for the start of absentee ballot applications on Sept. 13.
Well, the Nader campaign doesn't agree, according to their North Carolina coordinator, Adam McBroom. "We're definitely pursuing it," McBroom said last Friday. His understanding then was that a letter would be sent by the Nader campaign's lawyer to the North Carolina Secretary of State's office demanding that Nader be put on the ballot. Nader's press secretary, Kevin Zeese, did not return our calls.
On the face of it, McBroom may have a point. Bullock's decision invalidated all of the provisions for statewide independent candidacies, including the deadlines. Nader's staff, according to McBroom, now argues that the relevant standard for qualifying is contained in a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which ordered Texas to put then-independent presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy on its ballot--an order that was issued Sept. 30, 1976. The reason given by Justice Lewis Powell: McCarthy was a candidate of national interest, and the state had no compelling reason to prevent its voters from selecting him. Four years ago, running as the Green Party's presidential candidate, Nader's name made the ballots in 44 states, but not North Carolina's. That's because North Carolina's ballot-access laws are among the very toughest in the country. Third parties, like the Greens, must collect upwards of 50,000 signatures to be listed, and if they don't get 10 percent of the votes, they get de-listed and have to start all over again come the next election. Only the Libertarian Party ever makes that standard, so even though Nader was the official Greens candidate in 2000, he was required to run as an independent, meaning he needed some 100,000 signatures--or 2 percent of the registered voters. He didn't get them, and he also missed the deadline for filing the 500 signatures needed to have any Nader write-in votes counted, Thus, Nader got no votes in North Carolina, at least officially.
This year, the Nader campaign filed enough signatures to have write-ins counted and basically quit there. According to McBroom, they collected "a few thousand" signatures in all, with just 1,077 submitted and validated.
But that was before Bullock's ruling in a case filed by Paul DeLaney, who tried to run for the Senate but bowed out when told he'd need to collect 100,028 signatures. DeLaney thought that was an absurb, and unconstitutional, burden. Bullock did not agree, saying the sheer number might be defensible, but what was indefensible was making DeLaney collect more signatures to run as an independent than if he'd chosen to form his own "Paul DeLaney Party," which would have gotten him on the ballot with "just" 59,000 signatures.
The state's argument that its rules were designed to avoid "ballot clutter"--meaning candidates other than the Democrats and Republicans--was without merit, Bullock decided.
Around the country, Nader is having trouble getting on a lot of ballots. He didn't get the Green Party nomination this time, and in California failed also to win the backing of the Peace and Freedom Party, which went instead to Native American activist Leonard Peltier. And Nader last week failed to submit enough signatures by the deadline to get on the California ballot as an independent. A court challenge there is possible as well, apparently.
Nader did get the support of the Reform Party, or what's left of it since Ross Perot left the scene. A national teleconference of 41 party members in May (no, there was no convention) resulted in a Nader endorsement and possible ballot-access in seven states, including the battleground states of Florida and Michigan.
But a rump group of Reform members in Michigan claim they have the right to control the party's line there, and they don't support Nader. Nader, meanwhile, had stopped collecting signatures in Michigan and was depending on the Reform line. Into the breach marched the Michigan Republican Party, which had thoughtfully collected signatures for him. After first denouncing the effort, the Nader campaign said recently said that it would use the GOP's petitions if Nader isn't given the Reform line.
Meanwhile, Democratic party officials have challenged Nader petitions in a number of battleground states, most recently keeping him off the ballot in Oregon.
Nader's argument: You might not want to vote for me, but it's unconstitutional to keep me from running.
The GOP position: We love Ralph, and hope he cuts into Kerry's vote.
The Democrats: Access schmackcess, all's fair when it comes to beating George Bush.