In a bipartisan 67-50 vote, the state House of Representatives approved a bill to 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 0.25 percent of registered voters. That party could then retain ballot status by getting 0.25 percent of the votes for president, governor or any council of state office, whichever is lower.
Rep. Stephen LaRoque (R-Lenoir) introduced H.B. 32, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2011, with both Republicans and Democrats as primary sponsors. “There’s a wide-variety of membership in support of this bill who have come together for the idea that it is too difficult under present law for those citizens who want to create a small party to get on the ballot,” said Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), a primary sponsor.
The House vote reflected bipartisan support with 38 Democrats and 29 Republicans voting in favor. The measure also has backing from a broad spectrum of groups from across the political spectrum, including the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties, Democracy NC, the John Locke Foundation and the N.C. League of Women Voters.
“When political parties and public policy groups with such divergent views unite in a common cause it clearly attests to the fact that ballot access reform is not a partisan or special-interest group issue, but a question of fundamental freedom that transcends political and ideological differences,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Edgecombe, Wilson), another primary sponsor.
Only representative to speak against the measure. “This bill will just give credibility to fringe factions,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes (D-Caldwell). “I think the potential exists for a lot of people to get on the ballot who have clearly not demonstrated an ability to win an election.”
The bill will now go to the Senate. Supporters hope to have the bill passed in time to be effective for the 2012 election. But that may not be possible considering the short time left in this session and the number of bills the Republican majority is trying to pass.
The bill also lowers the petition signature requirements for unaffiliated statewide candidates to 0.25 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 bill lowers the signature requirement for unaffiliated candidates to 1 percent of the registered voters in that district.
Political parties with less than 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 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’s equivalent to 85,379 signatures. Based on voter registration as of January 1, the new law would put that figure at about 15,000.
The bill has the support of the Free the Vote Coalition, an alliance of alternate political parties and election law reform groups organized by Free the Vote North Carolina. 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, Free the Vote NC, the Free and Equal Foundation, the John Locke Foundation, and the Republican Liberty Caucus of N.C.
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. Tim Johnson, former vice chairman of the N.C. Republican Party, also has endorsed the bill.