A nationally recognized ballot access law expert said the N.C. Supreme Court made a wrong decision in upholding the state’s elections laws. The court ruled last week that the law did not violate the U.S. or state constitutions, putting an end to a five year long challenge by the state Libertarian Party.
“The N.C. Supreme Court certainly wrongly decided the case,” said Richard Winger, founder and editor of Ballot Access News. “It is outrageous that the court ignored an overwhelming amount of evidence in the case.” For example, the court majority said that the 85,379 signature requirement for new political parties was necessary to prevent “frivolous and fraudulent” candidates from getting on the ballot.
“The requirement was not raised in order to stop ballot clutter, as the record in the lawsuit showed,” he said. “The requirement was raised because legislators were upset that the Socialist Workers Party had qualified for the ballot in 1980, the first time that a Marxist political party had ever appeared on a government-printed ballot in North Carolina.” From 1929 to 1981, when only 10,000 signatures were required for a minor party to qualify, only four parties every appeared on the ballot.
Winger also criticized the court for neglecting to rule many subsidiary issues, like whether voters have a right to register into an unqualified party and for including erroneous assumptions and factual errors in their decision.
“The decision erroneously implies that many other states do not let primary voters sign a petition for a new party,” Winger said. The court cites an Ohio election law that refers to petitions to place a candidate on a party’s primary ballot to justify the claim that Ohio is a state where only party members may sign a petition to place a party on the ballot.
“This is a factual error,” Winger observed.
The court also said that California would not let primary voters sign a petition for an independent candidate. “That has nothing to do with a petition to create a new party,” Winger said. “Furthermore, California abandoned that restriction in 1976. Texas is the only state in the nation that won’t let primary voters sign a new party’s petition.”
“It is notable that many of the state’s leading newspapers have a better grasp of the facts than the majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court did,” he said, citing a recent editorial in the Greensboro News-Record.
Winger has been a leading advocate for more equitable ballot access laws for minor parties for 40 years. He’s recognized an expert on election law by federal courts in nine states. Winger also serves on the editorial board of the Election Law Journal.
“The court defended the law and, as a result, punished smaller parties because some very committed citizens overcame incredible obstacles,” said Daren Bakst, director of law and regulator studies at the John Locke Foundation. “Just because the mandate isn’t impossible to overcome doesn’t mean it isn’t an unreasonable and unconstitutional burden.
Bakst said that the court also failed to recognize that the time and money spent collecting signatures takes away from much-needed time for other endeavors. “Instead of raising money and getting ready for the election, smaller political parties have to divert their efforts to ensure they can just be a part of the election,” he said.
Nor did the court show any concern for the many parties, like the N.C. Green Party, who aren’t able to meet these incredibly stringent requirements, Bakst said.
“A system where only the two major parties, with limited exceptions, can ever have access to the ballot is not a legitimate system of voting,” he said.
Now that the court has upheld North Carolina’s restriive ballot access law, Bakst said the remedy to restore the right to choose lies in the General Assembly.
The Free the Vote Coalition, a multi-partisan coalition of alternative parties and public policy groups from across the political spectrum, is working in support of a bill that would dramatically reduce the signatures new political parties and unaffiliated candidates need to be listed on the ballot.
House Bill 32, the Electoral Freedom Act, is being considered by the House elections committee. It’s sponsored by Republicans, Democrats and the only unaffiliated member of the legislature. The bill would reduce the barriers for new political parties and unaffiliated candidates for statewide office to qualify for ballot listings to around 10,000 signatures.