Republicans target minor parties after election losses

October 31, 2013
Ohio Gov. John Kasich could benefit from an election reform bill making its way through the state legislature. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich could benefit from an election reform bill making its way through the state legislature. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Republican legislators and political activists in several red states are taking steps to make it harder for minor party candidates to make the ballot after a string of elections Democrats won with less than 50 percent of the vote.

The Ohio legislature voted earlier this week to require minor parties to collect signatures of 1 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial or presidential election. Libertarians and Green Party members complain that the rule — which would require them to gather about 56,000 signatures to make the 2014 ballot — sets an impossibly high standard.

In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed legislation earlier this year to require candidates running for Congress to collect enough signatures to represent one-third of 1 percent of registered voters in their respective districts. That’s a 40-fold increase in the number of signatures Libertarian Party candidates would have to collect.

And in Montana, an initiative to implement a top-two election system, under which only the two top candidates in a primary will advance to the general election, regardless of party, will be on the 2014 ballot. Similar measures have been adopted in Washington and California, but opponents of the Montana law say it would leave out Libertarians, who have captured a significant percentage of the vote in recent statewide races.

Republican-controlled states like Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Georgia all moved to raise thresholds for minor parties to qualify for the ballot this year, according to Richard Winger, who maintains the Web site Ballot Access News.

“Many of the laws that we’re seeing are about restricting democracy,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Especially in places that have been historic battlegrounds, or in places where we see demographics changing, the party in control is trying to clamp down.”

Republicans have lost a handful of races in recent years to Democrats, who have won with less than 50 percent of the vote after Libertarians have drawn enough support to make a difference.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has won twice with less than 50 percent of the vote. In 2006, Tester scored 49.2 percent to incumbent Republican Conrad Burns’s 48.3 percent, while Libertarian Stan Jones took 2.6 percent. In 2012, Tester won reelection with 48.6 percent of the vote against Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), who won 44.9 percent. Libertarian Dan Cox won 6.6 percent of the vote that year. In both cases, had the Libertarian vote gone to the Republican, Tester would have lost.

Arizona Republicans have also been frustrated by Libertarians. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) and Kyrsten Sinema (D) both won open seats with less than 50 percent of the vote in districts where Libertarian candidates won more than 6 percent. In both districts, the Republican vote plus the Libertarian vote would have added up to more than the Democratic vote.

Conservatives upset with Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who used executive power to expand Medicaid in his state over the objections of Republicans in the legislature, see the proposal as a way to keep Kasich opponents off the ballot. The bill’s opponents, which included both Libertarian and Green Party activists, call it the “John Kasich Re-Election Protection Act.”

“As written, it will wipe us out of our primary for 2014,” said Bob Bridges, the Ohio Libertarian Party’s political director. “It gives the two major parties, as if they don’t have enough of an advantage over challenger parties, a severe advantage when it comes to campaigning.”

Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz (R), who sponsored the bill, didn’t return messages seeking comment. Two versions of the bill, which passed the state House on Wednesday, will go through a conference committee to iron out differences.

In the last four election cycles, more than a dozen U.S. senators have won seats with less than 50 percent of the vote, among them Tester and Sens. Clarie McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) in 2006, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in 2008, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in 2010. Last year, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) won his seat with just 45.9 percent of the vote, while “None of these candidates,” an option unique to the Nevada ballot, received 4.5 percent and another ultra-conservative party candidate won 4.9 percent.

The new proposals are the latest wave of changes Republicans want to make to election and voting procedures. After winning control of legislatures across the country in 2010, Republicans pushed bills to require voters to show identification at the polls, to curtail early voting days, and to eliminate straight-ticket voting.

“The best way to analyze laws of this nature, and any campaign finance restrictions, they generally come from whichever side thinks they have the most to gain,” said David Keating, of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that advocates against restrictions on money in politics. “A lot of the laws that we see pass in the states are reactions to political environments.”

Winger, of Ballot Access News, said Democrats used to be the party that tried to keep minor parties off the ballot. Democrats tried to keep out independent presidential candidates like William Lemke in 1936, Henry Wallace in 1948, John B. Anderson in 1980, and Ralph Nader in both 2000 and 2004. Fears that Nader would strip votes away from Vice President Al Gore were borne out in 2000, when Nader took 97,488 votes in Florida, a state Gore lost by just 537 votes.

Republicans didn’t begin challenging minor party candidates until 2008, when the Pennsylvania GOP tried to kick former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), then the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, off the ballot in Pennsylvania. In 2012, Republicans tried to keep Libertarian Gary Johnson off the ballot in four swing states.

Judith Browne Dianis, of the Advancement Project, said voting-rights advocates expect more voting law changes to hit Republican-led state legislatures when states begin convening their annual sessions in January.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | October 31, 2013