Court weighs Ala. cases over election ballot access

By Errin Haines
Published March 20th 2007 in The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Former third-party and independent candidates from several Southern states are hoping a case before a federal appeals court could lead to a ruling that will bring easier access to state general-election ballots.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday as to whether an Alabama election law revised four years ago unfairly restricts those candidates from that state's ballot.

A federal judge last year upheld the law, which still requires general-election candidates to collect signatures from 3 percent of the total number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election, but moved up the deadline for submitting those signatures to the day of the first primary election.

Opponents of the law say the new deadline makes it harder to get enough legitimate signatures, since third-party candidates often fan out to polling places on the day of the primary to get the necessary signatures. Attorneys representing Alabama maintain the changes were made for several reasons, including to unclutter ballots and prevent "sore loser" candidates who lost in the primary from running as independents.

Among those sitting on the courtroom benches during the 45-minute hearing were several former third-party candidates from North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

"I'm telling you, it is impossible to get on the ballot as a statewide candidate," John Dashler, who tried to run as an independent candidate for Georgia governor last year, said after the hearing.

Emily Lewy of Dahlonega, Ga., ran as an independent candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives in 1998 and sued the state over ballot access issues.

"I support changing the laws in all of our states to make ballot access easy," Lewy said. "All we're asking is to give the people a choice."

Attorney Arlene Richardson, who represented several third-party candidates who brought the lawsuit four years ago, said Alabama had no reason to impose the new rules.

"This is a matter ... that affects a right that's very precious to a lot of people," Richardson told the three-judge panel.

Kevin Newsom, Alabama's solicitor general, argued that not many third-party candidates have even tried to run for statewide office — and pointed out that as local candidates run more often, they are becoming more familiar with the process.

"They seem to be getting used to this deadline and are becoming more able to meet it," Newsom told the judges.

Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus asked both attorneys whether the lower court judge had considered the 3 percent rule in relation to the earlier deadline — what he understood to be the crux of the case.

"I took your argument to be that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Marcus told Richardson.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based election advocacy group FairVote, said political leaders take steps that can often suppress choice at the polls — steps that he says are typically indefensible and done for undemocratic reasons.

"It's not that they fear losing to these candidates, but they fear them being disruptive," Richie said. "But democracy isn't just about who wins and represents the people. It's about the process of debate that happens before we make the choice."