Tuesday, September 26, 2006

You ask why there's no third-party movement in America? Here's one reason

It’s the kind of story that routinely gets buried inside a newspaper: A judge throws a third-party candidate off a ballot, for arcane and technical reasons that thoroughly bore the average reader, who probably never heard of the candidate and probably wouldn’t vote for him anyway.

So it goes today, with the news that Carl Romanelli, a Green party candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, has been ejected from the November ballot because a judge says there are too many invalid petition signatures. To your average political pundit, Romanelli’s court defeat seems significant only because of how it affects the main event, the showdown between incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. And the shorthand is that Casey benefits, because without Romanelli on the ballot in the nation’s marquee Senate race, liberals who deem Casey insufficiently liberal have no way to cast a protest vote – much to the dismay of the Santorum forces, who have labored to promote Romanelli’s candidacy.

Both major parties have long played that nakedly political game, of course. Santorum (now down by 12 points in a new poll released today) has been trying to boost the third-party guy in order to divide Democratic voters, not because he cares a whit about the principle of ballot access. And Democratic operatives have done the same thing. My favorite story is about Jack Kennedy’s first House campaign, in 1946. When a popular politician, city councilman Joseph Russo joined the race, Kennedy’s father promptly found a nobody named Joseph Russo and got him on the ballot, for the role purpose of dividing the Joseph Russo vote.

Anyway, I digress. The Romanelli story has important resonance beyond the Casey-Santorum connection. The bottom line is that it highlights the plight of third party candidates in general, and demonstrates the longstanding barriers erected by the two dominant political parties.

I am often asked, by people who are fed up with both the Democrats and Republicans, why there are so few alternatives, and “is there any chance we’ll have a third party to vote for?” The blunt answer is, dream on. One big reason is because the election laws in many states make it very difficult for new parties and candidates to gain any traction.

Case in point: Pennsylvania. I have yet to see, in any of the stories about Romanelli’s court loss, any mention of the fact that Pennsylvania’s ballot laws are among the most restrictive in America (according to the nonpartisan Ballot Access News, which specializes in such matters). Romanelli came up short in his push for valid ballot signatures – he needed 67,071 and he had 58,139 – but the real issue is why he needed to get so many.

That’s because of the way the state law is written. When somebody like Romanelli seeks to get on the ballot via petition signatures, here’s the magic number he must reach: two percent of all the votes that were cast in the previous election for the statewide candidate who got the highest vote tally. In this case, (ironically) the biggest vote-getter in 2004 was the Democratic candidate for treasurer, Bob Casey Jr. And the vote tally was especially high because 2004 was a presidential election year, which meant a much higher turnout than in a midterm election year. Two percent of the ’04 Casey vote equals 67, 071.

Romanelli’s 58, 319 is actually the highest valid signature tally of any third-party or independent candidate in America this year, except for two independent gubernatorial candidates in Texas, yet it’s still not deemed to be good enough (barring a theoretical final ruling by the state’s highest court). To put the Pennsylvania requirement into perspective, just check out some of the other states: Minnesota, for instance, requires only 2000 valid signatures. Ohio requires 5000. New Jersey requires 800.

Several years ago, in Pennsylvania, a gubernatorial Election Reform Task Force voted 12-0 to loosen the state ballot access requirements, concluding in a report that the law "be amended to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties and political bodies". One member stated, "I think it is time to have equal and fair standards for all candidates." But that time appears to have come and gone, because the GOP-dominated state legislature hasn’t budged (not that a Democratic majority legislature would have done any different).

The irony is that today’s two dominant parties actually benefited, in their infancy, from the dearth of ballot access restrictions. Back in the early nineteenth century, state governments welcomed all parties fairly equally. Scholars have written that the newly-created Republican party gained an immediate toehold in 1854 – winning more gubernatorial and House races than any other party – because there were no laws on the books inhibiting their access to the ballot box. That all came later, toward the end of the century, once the two parties were fully embedded.

These ballot laws remind me of beach access restrictions; folks who own property at the shore often try to bar the newbies. Carl Romanelli is hoping for a final reprieve from the state Supreme Court, but he’d be well advised not to pack his sun lotion.