Break down barriers to minority parties

By Ralph Nader
Published July 9th 2006 in The Baltimore Sun
In no other Western democracy do third-party or independent candidates confront more obstacles and exclusions from contributing to a competitive democratic process than in the United States. These include both legal obstacles and an abject lack of media coverage.

Legal impediments include ballot access barriers, such as requiring huge numbers of verified signatures subject to arbitrary challenges by state officials, as well as a winner-take-all system without the benefit of instant runoff voting or proportional representation.

The Green Party in Germany became part of the parliament and, later, the governing coalition because, by law, any party that receives more than 5 percent of the vote receives a proportional number of legislators in parliament. Thus, minority views are represented in the legislative process.
But in the United States, the rigid Republican and Democratic duopoly - a veritable two-party elected dictatorship - has rigged the rules against its competitors.

Instead of one federal standard for federal office-seekers, there are different state standards set by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is understandable for state elections, but it presents expensive and arduous barriers for a third party running federal candidates for congressional offices and the presidency.
In North Carolina, for example, state law required third-party presidential candidates to submit 100,532 verified names of voters to get on the ballot. Because of legibility, address changes and arbitrarily declared deficiencies, candidates are advised to submit twice that number. And that is just one state.

It is not easy to get on the candidates' forums. If minor-party candidates do get on, the major candidates do not show up - as has been the case with the senatorial race in Maryland.

The overwhelming dominance of one-party congressional districts through partisan redistricting exacerbates the position of the minor-party candidates.

In 2004, as in 2002, only five out of 435 incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives were defeated - the lowest in U.S. history. Absent significant competition from the other major party in district after district, the voters lose interest and resign themselves to yet another coronation of the incumbent representative.

It was not always this way.

In the 19th century, it was much easier for third parties to get on the ballot. Over and over, a plethora of smaller parties and their candidates challenged the major parties by pioneering major reforms that we now take for granted.

There were parties that advocated for the abolition of slavery before the Civil War and parties that championed for the right of women to vote. There were parties that fought for many reforms for workers, including the 40-hour workweek and a living wage. There were parties that demanded federal regulation of the giant corporations and monopolies and urged the graduated income tax and health and safety protections.

None of the smaller parties ever won a presidential election. Yet many of their agendas were adopted later by one or both of the major parties, based on the smaller parties' groundbreaking agitation and educational campaigns.

Ballot access and other barriers became much more difficult during the first half of the 20th century. These restrictions on third parties and independent campaigns largely remain on the books, with regular additional accretions legislated by both major parties. They do not welcome small electoral starts.

When the news media unquestionably tolerate this increasingly converging and commonly financed Republican and Democratic duopoly, all of these anti-competitive, dreary, fat-cat-indentured political traditions become more entrenched.

Unfortunately for the citizenry and the media, that now happens almost all the time.

In Maryland, lawyer Kevin Zeese, a national authority on the drug war and an accomplished practitioner of democracy, is running for the U.S. Senate. He has been endorsed by the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Populist Party. This is the first time in history that these parties have recognized many common goals and nominated one candidate, a story in itself.

Mr. Zeese's informed agenda differs significantly from those of the two major parties' front-runners, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. (Mr. Zeese was the chief researcher and press person on my 2004 presidential campaign.)

He receives very little press as he travels throughout Maryland. After all, only one of the two major candidates is going to win, right? Foregone conclusion, right? Self-fulfilling prophecy, right?

These are mindsets that no open democracy can ever embrace. For down that road is stagnation, complacency, corruption and the stifling of any public expectation for renewal. Imagine if nature did not allow seeds to sprout or if laws allowed major businesses to block small entrepreneurs from emerging.

It is the news media's job to cover what is important, what is credible and new, not just a horse race that is now powerful, redundant, too similar and scripted day after day.

Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate and an independent candidate for president in 2004, is the author of "The Good Fight." His e-mail is [email protected].