Reform Week: Ballot Access

Member Group : Phil English

This week I am attempting to lay out a series of simple and direct political reforms that would make our elections more representative, and give voters a stronger voice in the process. One of the ways to do this is to change the election rules to foster greater competition, in both primaries and general elections. More choices usually means more citizen involvement, and greater legitimacy to the outcome.

The current system favors the status quo in subtle ways, by favoring incumbents and experienced political actors over newcomers. It favors the existing political parties by insulating them against legitimate competition.

Most elections are settled before they are started, by artificially limiting choices through creating illogical barriers to candidates qualifying for the ballot. This happens in both primary contests, and in General Elections.

How do we change this? A few modest adjustments in the state election laws.

For starters, we should lower the number of signatures needed on primary petitions for candidates to qualify for the ballot. There is no reason why a congressional hopeful should need 1000 signatures to contest a primary in Pennsylvania: it would be easy to reduce the requirement by 75%, and still retain the integrity of the process. The same could be done for state legislative petitions. The current rules protect incumbents, but contribute little to the quality of elections. Similarly, candidates could be given more time to circulate petitions.

Another beneficial change would be to relax the rules that govern how parties fill vacant nominations. Parties now face state legal restrictions against filling a vacant nomination with a candidate who has lost a primary. This is absurd.

A frequent blog presence, Joe LaRocca, opined in my last posting that we should "loosen the requirements for third party candidate nominations." I happen to agree with him. It is hard to defend the massive procedural roadblocks imposed on third party and Independent hopefuls seeking to put their name on the November ballot. Third parties face large and arcane signature requirements to qualify their candidates, and large thresholds of voting to achieve permanent ballot status. Independents have to declare their status early, and mount daunting petition drives. All of these efforts divert scarce time and money from other campaign activities, and throttle independent candidacies before they get started.

Today more and more voters identify themselves as independents, but have few opportunities to choose elected officials from outside of the two parties. That is a paradox that detracts from the political process, and can contribute to frustration.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a strong preference for the two party system, especially where the two parties offer real choices with philosophical contrasts. I would like to see both major parties become more vibrant, and more relevant.

In my mind, the way to do that is not to insulate them from outside competition. Instead, I believe the way to strengthen the two national parties is to open them to greater competition and challenge them to appeal to dissatisfied voters.

History shows that the Free-Soil, Populist, Greenback, Farmer-Labor and Progressive Parties each gave expression to legitimate political movements, which were then co-opted by the major parties, to the benefit of American politics. The challenge of minor parties can be a healthy thing, because it forces the major political parties to redefine themselves and compete. Although I would hate to see the American political system become balkanized along European lines, I think the election laws should allow broader competition, and avoid rationing choices. Ballot access should be a right, and an accessible one, not a limited franchise.

What do you think?