This past week a panel of judges in North Carolina heard the appeal of a 2005 case filed by the state’s Libertarian Party over its loss of ballot access following the 2004 elections. Even though the Libertarians have regained ballot status the suit has gone forward on behalf of other minor parties still struggling to meet ballot access requirements. The North Carolina election law in question requires political parties not officially recognized (non-Republican and non-Democrat) by the state to gather signatures equaling 2 percent of those who cast votes in the previous gubernatorial election. For the 2012 ballot, 80,000 signatures of registered voters will be required by minor parties just to get on the ballot. The basis of the suit is the Libertarian Party’s claim that the $130,000 they spent and the three years it took them to acquire the signatures put an unfair, unconstitutional burden on their efforts to effectively run candidates for public office. Given that Republicans and Democrats do not have to jump these same hurdles to achieve ballot access the Libertarians are right.
Defending the state’s law was deputy attorney general of North Carolina, Alexander Peters. He argued that the state’s ballot access restrictions on minor parties are reasonable. According to Mr. Peters, “The very fact the Libertarians were able to gain access proved the point that getting on the ballot was not impossible for third parties, even if it was costly and time consuming.” Furthermore, he added that, “The larger the ballot, the greater the potential for errors and complications.” His argument was that allowing third parties to increase their numbers would complicate the administration of elections. He did assure the court that there would probably always be at least two parties in the state.
Of course, North Carolina is not unique in having restrictive ballot access laws. Most states have them. However, because of his remarks, Alexander Peters is not fit to be an attorney general of any state. His argument is offensive, not based on constitutional law, and worthy of the tyrannical gibberish usually uttered by the Mugabes and Chavezes of the world. For him to declare that conducting elections with minimal problems is more important than guaranteeing the civil rights of American citizens is preposterous. Do states not administer welfare programs, education systems, and driver’s licenses? We never hear that the millions of people served by these bureaucracies complicate the work of the state to the point where it shouldn’t provide those services anymore. Why should the most basic function of our government, namely an electoral system, be so demeaned? After all, aren’t the results of free and fair elections supposed to determine the policies our government will pursue?
Additionally, Mr. Peters’ remarks are an offense to every American soldier who fought in Iraq. Many fought and many died instituting democracy in that country. At election time, Iraqis have close to 20 parties on the ballot to choose from, but our troops come home and usually have only a choice between two. Given that both major American parties supported the war in Iraq that means they didn’t really have a say in whether they went to war or not. The decision was made for them by our corrupt electoral system. Certainly, if the Iraqi electoral system can conduct elections with 20 political parties participating than any state in our union can do at least the same.
At the end of the day, ballot access laws are detrimental to our political system for at least four reasons. First off, they discourage political participation of the citizenry. How many times have we heard I am not voting because it is a choice between “the lesser of two evils”? Many folks feel the two major parties are just different sides of the same coin. Usually one is for a 20 percent increase in the size of government and the other offers a 15 percent increase. One is for invading a country while the other prefers covert, clandestine actions. Both take few precautions when it comes to taking our rights away. And neither has been averse to giving trillions of our dollars to big bankers. There are a huge number of Americans who feel disenfranchised by the system. That is a big reason why voter turnout is usually low.
Ballot access laws are detrimental to our political system because they are anti-democratic. They can only be defended with anti-democratic rhetoric like that spoken by Alexander Peters. Now I understand that we live in a republic. But, our republic is based on the essence of democracy – a government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of political power. How can discriminating against allegedly minor views through ballot access laws be justified in our system? It is placing a greater importance on the views of some at the expense of others. Current polls indicate that between 10-20 percent of Americans identify themselves as libertarians. Probably a large chunk of Americans are at the opposite end of the spectrum – socialist. By restricting ballot access or at the very least placing high hurdles in the way of minor parties state governments silence the voice of many in pursuit of their right under democracy.
Thirdly, ballot access laws are just plain unconstitutional. North Carolina’s law violates both the free speech clause of the state’s constitution and the First Amendment right to free speech of the federal constitution. When minor parties, like the Libertarian party in 2005, cannot meet ballot access requirements voices are silenced and rights are violated. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution guarantees “equal protection” under the law to each American. How can Republican and Democratic candidates for office not be required to jump through the same hoops as minor party candidates and it is considered equal under the law?
Lastly, ballot access laws have contributed to the formation of our elite political class. By lessening competition to the point where only Republicans and Democrats get elected there is of course no one left to administer the election laws but Republicans and Democrats. What a monopoly and conflict of interest this is. If the Republicans and Democrats were corporations they would be investigated for anti-trust violations. The best example of this happened last August in Texas when both John McCain and Barack Obama failed to meet the filing deadline to get on the ballot – neither man had even been nominated by their respective party by the deadline. Did they have to file a lawsuit to challenge the law? No, it was simply overturned by the secretary of state of Texas. Meanwhile, Libertarian party candidate Bob Barr was spending thousands of dollars and hours fighting six states over ballot access.
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” To be sure, democracy requires hard work and due diligence. For a society to thrive, all voices should be heard. Ballot access laws that discriminate against minor political parties should be abolished to recover and then ensure our prosperity.