Nader campaign breaks ballot-access barriers

Nader campaign breaks ballot-access barriers

Tens of thousands of volunteers, nine lawsuits part of nationwide ballot access drive

by Stacy Malkan
Volume 5, Issue 1
Winter / Spring 2001

In the face of draconian ballot access laws written by Democrats and Republicans, the Nader/ LaDuke campaign achieved a major victoryin 2000 by qualifying for the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In doing so, they gathered more than half a million signature, collected overwhelmingly by volunteers

In state after state, thousands of Nader/LaDuke and Green Party petitioners took to the pavements, satisfying early deadlines, arbitrary rules and extremely high signature requirements. Volunteers endured police harassment, intimidation by Democrats, stolen petitions and even efforts opposinge them at taxpayer expense.

Faced with a system that reduces voter choice on Election Day, the Nader/ LaDuke 44-ballot victory evidenced massive grassroots support. With paid petitioners in only six states, and with only $150,000 spent, ballot access was achieved primarily through the labor of dedicated volunteers, many who did so full time.

In contrast, the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan – without a grassroots network of support — spent $4 million gaining a ballot line in just 28 states (Reform was already on 21 ballots, primarily thanks to Ross Perot’s 1996 campaign and the millions he spent on it. Nader qualified for 34 new ballot lines in 2000, buidling upon the ten the Greens had after 1998.)

The ballot drive also helped mobilize the Green Party at the grassroots. “In states that had to do ballot access drives, that was the primary mechanism to organize new chapters,” said Todd Main, Nader 2000 field director. “It’s an effective organizing tool that gave people something concrete to organize around.”

For the longer term, the ballot drive also gave the Green Party the opportunity to expand its critical number of states in which it has ongoing ballot status as a recognized statewide political party – from 10 after 1998 to 22 after 2000.

Battle for the Ballot plays out in courts across the land

One of primary goals of the Nader 2000 campaign was to challenge unfair barriers to ballot access. Nader hoped to imrpove the system for future candidates, as well as qualify in as many states as possiblehimself. Eight lawsuits were brought by his campaign challenging nge onerous ballot-access laws in North Carolina, West Virginia, Illinois, South Dakota, Idaho, Ohio and Pennsylvania. State Green Parties brought four addtional suits in Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Oklahoma. Results were mixed, with victoies, defeats and cases still pending.

In Oklahoma, petitioners claimed significant harrassmentd by police. In spite of this, they gathered more than 36,000 signatures – but aproximately 100 shy of the amount needed for ballot access. In court, witnesses testified that harassment by police and government officials made it difficult for Green Party petitioners to collect enough signatures. “Half our volunteers quit petitioning and many cited police harassment as the reason,” said Lori Theis, state Nader 2000 coordinator. One petitioner was arrested by police for trespassing on city property – at an event for which he had a permit.

Oklahoma judges offered no redress and Nader was denied a place on the ballot. This courtroom defeat was balanced by a sweet victory in Illinois, where a judge ruled against the state’s early signature deadline and ordered Nader be placed on the ballot. This remarkable court victory began a long battle with the Democrats, who went to great lengths to oppose Nader’s placement on the ballot.

About half of the 39,000 Nader petition signatures turned in were challenged by the state’s Democratic machine. Dozens of Green Party volunteers responded with 40-hour-plus weeks at the Chicago Board of Elections office, fighting line by line to protect signatures challenged as illegitimate, mostly for unsubstantive reasons. “We saw challenges because someone wrote ‘CHGO’ for Chicago, or ‘KING DR.’ for Martin Luther King Jr. Drive,” said Chicago Green Elizabeth Fraser.

More than 150 volunteers worked tirelessly and finally the Democratic machine admitted defeat, acknowledging the Nader campaign had collected more than enough valid signatures. Another victory came in West Virginia after a judge’s decision resulted in ballot access there when he found that the state violated the First Amendment right of free association by requiring petitioners to be registered voters of the state.

In Ohio, a court victory ordering the state to place Nader’s party affiliation next to his name on the ballot was halted on appeal. Although a judge ruled in favor of allowing the “Green Party” designation on the ballot alongside Nader/LaDuke, the Secretary of State ordered a special court session in attempt to acquire a stay of order. The request was denied, but the Secretary filed an appeal (at taxpayer expense) and obtained a stay from the 6th Circuit Court to leave the words “Green Party” off the ballot. The case is pending

In South Dakota, the court struck down the state’s early signature deadline, but then provided no remedy for Nader to be placed on the ballot in 2000.

Looking ahead to 2004

The courtroom victories of 2000 will ease the way next time in several states. But in other states a legislative strategy will likely also be needed.

In 1996, Colorado went from one of the most difficult states to obtain ballot access to one of the easiest. Legislation introduced by a progressive Democrat (with Green support) changed the rules to allow automatic access to all parties with at least 1,000 registered members.

In Georgia, Greens are advocating legislation that would lower the number of required petition signatures from 1% of the registered voters to 1% of the people who actually last voted.

Nader field driector Todd Main would also like to see the 2004 campaign start two years earlier in laying the groundwork for petitioning. With proper planning, Greens can focus in 2004 on the campaign itself and not the ballot drives.

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