Monday, December 26, 2011

A Teachable Moment for the Republicans

Last Friday afternoon, December 23, 2011, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry were notified that they had not turned in enough valid signatures to qualify their names for Virginia's Republican primary ballot. Predictably, this has caused feathers to fly, complete with threats of lawsuits against Virginia petitioning requirements.

Gentlemen, welcome to the world where adherents of the Libertarian Party, the Greens, or the Constitution Party live: where their exhausting effort and huge expense meets bureaucracy, unending paperwork and needless legal hurdles -- before we are even allowed our place at the starting line.

Virginia’s primary petition requirements were copied from the laws originally written to keep independents and third parties off the ballot. For a century, Democrats and Republicans colluded to establish and tighten ballot-access standards so much that voter choice has become practically nonexistent. This makes it difficult for us in the alternative & independent candidate sector to feel much sympathy for the ‘major’ candidates when their own laws snare them.

One would hope that the Republicans would take this as an educational opportunity. Rick Perry, especially. In 2003, Perry vetoed Texas bill # HB 1274 (which had passed both houses of the legislature unanimously). The measure would have deleted a Texas law that required petition circulators to read a 93-word statement to every voter they approach. The statement, which is still in the Texas law, thanks to Perry’s veto, said:

I know that the purpose of this petition is to entitle the ___________ Party to have its nominees placed on the ballot in the general election for state and county officers. I have not voted in a primary election or participated in a convention of another party during this voting year, and I understand that I become ineligible to do so by signing this petition. I understand that signing more than one petition to entitle a party to have its nominees placed on the general election ballot in the same election is prohibited.”

Forcing people who wish to petition their government to read such a long statement makes it a lot harder to obtain signatures -- which was the original intent of the requirement. It was designed to make political expression via new parties and alternative candidates harder to engage in.

Perry’s veto indicated he had no interest in fair ballot access in 2003. In the last 60 years, only one other Governor -- besides Perry -- vetoed any bill that would have improved ballot access. Maybe his failure in Virginia will improve his attitude.

Petitioning laws were originally built -- the strictest of them by majority-Democratic legislatures between 1910 and 1970 -- to shut out third parties like the Libertarian Party. The laws did the job, too -- in some states, third parties have not been allowed on the ballot for over half a century, and counting.

Petitioning requirements force new, upstart third parties to exhaust themselves asking several hundred thousand voters to help them qualify for the ballot. Unless those new parties have the money and activist backing of the wealthy and political elite already, just getting on the ballot so they can then present their ideas to voters is an expensive, time-consuming task.

Republicans should be wary of restrictive ballot access. Some states in the past century could have been regarded as one-party Democratic Party oligarchies. Think of Massachusetts, where the Democrats are so dominant that Republicans sometimes are the political ‘afterthought’. Do Republicans really wish to help set up the system that could hamstring them in the future?

Nor should the Democrats, in their glee about the Republicans' difficulties, forget how restrictive ballot laws sometimes snare them as well. For instance, Indiana Democrats were worried enough about getting Obama and Clinton onto the state primary ballot in 2008 that they felt compelled to falsify their petitions.[1]

Democrats and Republicans alike have forgotten that elections are for voters. When voters can't vote for the candidate they wish to vote for, they are being hurt and our political discussion is being disrupted.

Perhaps the Republicans who now control the state legislature should take this as a message that Virginia's restrictive ballot-access laws are overdue for some overhaul.

The Libertarian Party’s position is that primaries are essentially state subsidies for political parties. Therefore, the only real reform needed to the “primary process” is to eliminate government-run primaries altogether, and allow political party members to determine who they wish to represent them during the general election – at their own expense.

Failing that, then reform can be easily accomplished by simply reducing the petition requirement (for all candidates and parties, primary or general) to 1/10th of the current number, rounded up to the next nearest 10. This would reduce statewide petitions to 1,000 signatures for president, governor, US Senate, etc; and congress to 100 signatures; Delegate to 20 signatures.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the reaction to the Republicans’ failure to make the primary ballot is the opinion of some that a candidate doesn't “deserve” to be able to appeal to voters unless they're organized enough to get __________ volunteers to waste several of their weekends collecting signatures. This attitude plays to the power of the media to spoon-feed candidates to the American public, because the candidates the media choose to publicize are the ones who will find all the volunteers they need. So Republicans especially: Do we *really* want the media to decide not only who wins, but even who gets to compete?

I have personally collected thousands of petition signatures for dozens of candidates at different levels. Anyone who thinks requiring thousands of signatures to get on the ballot is compatible with a free society needs to research the history and justifications for these oppressive laws a bit more.

Forcing alternative candidates -- who haven't been given the chance to appear in the modern "public square" that is the media -- to utterly exhaust themselves collecting signatures is a reprehensible practice in a “free” society.

Governments should not have any ability to control ballots at all. Open ballots not printed or controlled by government [2]gave us men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Compare them -- even with all of their faults -- to the modern crop of corruptocrats.

Making Virginia’s Ballot Laws Better

Reform of Virginia’s ballot access laws should begin with the following:

  1. Reduce signature requirements for all offices and all candidates -- Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, or independent -- by 90 % (rounding to next 10). A statewide candidate petition (Governor, president, etc) would then require 1,000 signatures; a candidate for congress would need to collect 150, a state delegate candidate, 20.
  2. Introduce a full-party access petition, 10,000 signatures to place a new party on the general election ballot for two statewide cycles.
  3. Eliminate the witnessing requirement for petition signatures.
  4. Eliminate the residency requirement for petitioners.
  5. Eliminate petition sheets, and move to a postcard petition -- where individual voters would fill out a post card stating they wish a candidate (or party) to be placed on the ballot.
  6. Get with the last decade and allow petitions to be ‘signed’ by voters online.


Marc Montoni serves as the Secretary of the Libertarian Party of Virginia and he is a resident of Rockingham County, VA.

To request more information about Libertarian ideas, call 800-ELECT-US or visit


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