Monday, January 26, 2009

Ballot access laws too restrictive

Alabama voters talk a lot about independence, about not being bound to either of the major parties, but they seldom get the chance to vote for independent candidates. There just aren't many of them, in large part because the state's ballot access laws impose unreasonable requirements for them to get on the ballot.

Third-party candidates have major obstacles to overcome as well. The system plainly favors the Democratic and Republican parties, neither of which -- predictably -- has shown a lot of interest in changing the rules of political contests in the state.

A lawsuit pending in federal court in Montgomery challenges Alabama's ballot access regulations. The outcome of that lawsuit is uncertain. It is entirely possible that the system is not unconstitutional, as the lawsuit alleges, but there is little doubt that the system is needlessly restrictive. It may well be lawful, but it doesn't serve the public interest.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense, except to exclude people from the ballot," Arlene Richardson, attorney for plaintiff Andy Shugart, told The Associated Press. "It's why you usually don't see anyone on the ballot in Alabama except Democrats and Republicans."

Independent or third-party candidates for president have the easiest path to the ballot in Alabama. They have to collect 5,000 signatures. That's probably the only Alabama ballot access law that doesn't need changing.

Those running for other offices have higher hurdles to clear. In Shugart's case, he wanted to run as an independent for Congress from the 6th District. He would have had to gather signatures totaling 3 percent of the votes cast in the last governor's race. In that district, Shugart would have needed more than 6,000 signatures on his petition -- far more than a candidate for president would have needed to gather from the entire state.

To mount a campaign for statewide office next year -- for governor, for example -- an independent or third-party candidate would need that same 3 percent of the 2006 vote total, or about 37,500 signatures.

Shugart's lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the state from requiring any independent or third-party candidate to gather more than the 5,000 signatures required of a presidential candidate. Should he prevail, that would be an improvement in the ballot access rules.

However, 5,000 signatures are still a lot to demand in a single congressional district. A better approach would be a smaller percentage of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.

Alabama law requires third parties to get 20 percent of the vote in an election in order to have their candidates automatically on the ballot in the next one. That is an unreasonably high threshold that could be at least halved without concern for the process.

It is important not to make ballot access too easy. That could clog the ballot with numerous candidacies that aren't serious and that don't represent any appreciable degree of support. However, overly restrictive rules only serve to protect the entrenched parties.

Regardless of the outcome of Shugart's suit, the Legislature should amend Alabama's access laws to allow independents and third parties a fair shot at the ballot.

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