House panel votes to lower ballot access barriers

The House elections committee approved a bill today that would dramatically lower the threshold for a new political party to gain and maintain ballot access in North Carolina. The bill lowers the number of signatures a new party must obtain to one-quarter of one percent of the registered voters in the state. That party could then retain ballot status by getting one-quarter of one percent of the voters for president, governor or any council of state office, whichever is lower.

H.B. 32, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2011, was approved in a nearly unanimous voice vote. The bill is on the House calendar for Tuesday, June 7. Free the Vote North Carolina has issued a call to action to have its members contact their state representatives to vote yes.

The bill also lowers the petition signature requirements for unaffiliated statewide candidates to one-quarter of one percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial or presidential race. For district offices, including the state legislature, U.S. House, and local office, the signature requirement for unaffiliated candidates is lowered to one percent of the registered voters in that district.

Political parties with less then 10 percent of the registered voters may also opt out of the state’s primary system and nominate their candidates in convention. If these parties choose to hold primaries, only one primary will be held with the winner determined by a plurality vote.

North Carolina currently has the second most restrictive ballot access laws in the nation. Under current law, a new party must get signatures equal to two percent of the most recent vote for governor or president to qualify for the ballot. That is currently equivalent to 85,379 signatures. Based on voter registration as of January 1, the new law would put that figure at 15,258.

H.B. 32 was introduced by Rep. Stephen A. LaRoque (R-Lenoir). Primary sponsors include Representatives Glen Bradley (R-Franklin), Paul Luebke (D-Durham) and Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson).

The bill has the support of the Free the Vote Coalition, an alliance of alternate political parties and election law reform groups. Coalition members include the Conservative, Constitution, Green, Libertarian, Modern Whig, and Reform parties, Ballot Access News, the N.C. Campaign for Liberty, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, N.C. Common Cause, Democracy NC, FairVote, the Free and Equal Foundation, the John Locke Foundation, and the Republican Liberty Caucus of N.C.

Tim Johnson, vice chairman of the N.C. Republican Party, has endorsed the bill. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of N.C., the State Bar Association, and the N.C. League of Women Voters have expressed support.