Friday, January 18, 2008

Political Reform 101, Lesson 1: Getting on the Ballot

Before I began writing We the Purple, I knew as much about what it takes to get on an election ballot as I knew about the mating habits of bottlenose dolphins.* But as my research led me from independent voters to independent candidates, I began to realize that I had entered into the swampland of U.S. politics for real. "Dirty tricks" doesn't begin to describe the measures used by partisan politicos to keep the names of would-be independent and third-party candidates from ever appearing on a ballot.

This issue is known as ballot access, and it's one that will make your eyes glaze over...until, say, you discover that you can't vote for the candidate of your choice. Sounds utterly un-American, doesn't it? But that's what happened to me in 2004, when I discovered that my ballot did not offer a write-in option in the presidential race. Turns out, election districts are under no obligation to provide such an option. But that's another problem.

Ballot access is a critical issue for independents, because until independent candidates stand a decent shot at political office on any level, we aren't likely to see the other reforms that our political system so obviously needs.

Here are just some of the problems:

  • Ballot access regulations for independents vary wildly from one state to the next, often include impossible requirements, and are so complex that you have to assume the intention is to keep all but the major party candidates from running.
  • Voters seldom learn anything about independent candidates because the candidates have had to spend all their time and money meeting ballot requirements instead of talking about the issues.
  • Stringent ballot access laws limit our choices, contributing to lesser-of-two-evils voting.
  • Incumbents in many legislative districts go unchallenged because the opposing party simply cedes the seat, and no independent or minor party candidate can meet the strict ballot requirements.

For fun, go to your state's web site and and check out what it takes to get on the ballot for statewide office for anyone other than a major party candidate (they usually just have to file some forms and pay a filing fee). Oh, wait a minute. You probably won't find the information on the web site. You may have to go to the secretary of state's office at your state capital, and hope and pray that the documents you're given are 1) accurate and 2) complete. Don't be surprised if they're neither.

Oh, democracy!

Forget all that. You can find the best information anywhere on the issue of ballot access on Richard Winger's Ballot Access web site. Just be prepared to become sickened, angry, and enlightened, in whatever order your nature normally responds to new and perverse information.


* Bottlenose mating involves a conspiracy of love-struck males and a pod of immobilized females. That's all I know, and that's all I want to know.

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