Ten weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Ralph Nader is mired in an arduous struggle to get his name on the ballot in a host of states he contested four years ago.
Yesterday, Michigan election officials deadlocked over whether to accept Nader's petition to be on the ballot as an independent candidate, which Democrats argued was riddled with fraud, sending the issue to an appeals court.
Earlier in the day, a federal court in Illinois denied Nader's challenge to state election laws. He contended they are too hostile to independent candidates, in part because the June 21 deadline for submitting a petition to get on the ballot is earlier than those of almost every other stateDogged by an unprecedented public relations and legal campaign against him by the Democratic Party and like-minded groups -- which fear that his candidacy will swing the election to President Bush -- the longtime consumer advocate has failed to meet qualifying standards for the ballot in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. He faces other challenges to his petitions in numerous states; 17 more state filing deadlines occur in the coming weeks.
"We wanted to neutralize his campaign by forcing him to spend money and resources defending these things," said Toby Moffett, a lobbyist and former Nader supporter who co-founded Ballot Project Inc., which is assisting with legal challenges to Nader by Democrats in a number of states. "But much to our astonishment we've actually been more successful than we thought we'd be in stopping him from getting on at all."
A clear picture of which state ballots will list Nader -- who in 2000 was on ballots in 43 states plus the District -- may not emerge until early October, when most ballots are finalized.
Many states' ballots are still in flux because of the likelihood of further challenges and appeals, such as in Virginia, where the State Board of Elections rejected Nader's petition last Friday. Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) reversed the decision yesterday.
Despite efforts to thwart Nader, his campaign said he will likely succeed in several closely contested states, including Florida, where he received 97,000 votes in 2000, while Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by a few hundred votes.
"We believe we will be on the ballot in the vast majority of states," said Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese. "But it takes away from media attention we might get otherwise, and voters don't get to hear about the issues, only the ballot access fights. In 2000, we didn't have to waste so much time fending off dirty tricks."
In his last run for president, Nader was nominated by the Green Party and received 2.7 percent of the vote. This year, at the urging of the Democrats and many former Nader backers, the party, which claims more than 20 automatic slots on state ballots, denied Nader its endorsement, leaving Nader to contend with a range of requirements to get on the ballot that vary from state to state.
He did receive the nomination of the Reform Party, which claims ballot lines in seven states, including Michigan and Florida. In Delaware, he has been nominated by the Independent Party, which has a ballot line there.
In several states, the ballot disputes have turned nasty, with Democrats lining up teams of lawyers to scrutinize petitions and allege rampant fraud, and Nader accusing the party of using dirty tricks to keep him off the ballot.
Moffett says his group has raised about $100,000 to fight Nader and is relying on pro bono work from lawyers across the country who have contributed up to $2 million worth of labor. The Nader campaign would not disclose how much the legal wrangles have cost.
In Oregon last month, Nader attempted to round up 1,000 supporters in a day to sign a petition -- one way to get on the ballot in that state. But Democratic activists packed the hall and then declined to sign on, leaving his petition a few hundred names short. His campaign must collect 15,300 signatures by today, and it has accused local Democrats and union officials of threatening petition gatherers with jail time if they turn in names that prove fraudulent.
Democrats in Pennsylvania, where Nader submitted 47,000 names, have filed suit alleging that the vast majority are fraudulent.
Two new challenges were made yesterday to Nader's petitions. In Maine, where he filed just 128 more than the requisite 4,000 signatures, anti-Nader activists are hoping to disqualify him. In West Virginia, state Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw Jr. (D) filed a lawsuit alleging that people collecting signatures for the candidate employed tactics -- including concealing the fact that the petition was for Nader -- that violated state election laws.
Challenges are also underway in several other states, including New Hampshire and Iowa.
In Michigan, Nader was forced to sue for recognition as the Reform Party candidate, after state officials ruled in July that the party's 2000 schism into two wings made it impossible to determine which branch could choose a nominee.
In a separate attempt to get on the ballot there, he submitted a petition to run as an independent, but it emerged that 45,040 of the 50,503 signatures submitted on his behalf were gathered by Republicans. The state requires candidates to collect 30,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot.
A brief filed by state Democrats with the Michigan Board of Canvassers contends that petitions circulated by Republicans were stamped "paid for by Nader for President 2004," which the brief calls "false and misleading," and that many of the people listed are not registered voters, and their signatures are therefore invalid.
The Nader campaign did not send a representative to the hearing, in which the four-member board was evenly split on whether to accept the petition. That meant Nader must make his case in court to run as an independent.
Zeese said the campaign is focused on making Nader the Reform Party candidate in the state.
Nader, whose support in some national polls has fallen as low as 2 to 4 percent, has raised just over $1.5 million as of June 30, leaving him with less cash on hand than accumulated debts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Nader has yet to run a television ad, but at least two Democratic-leaning anti-Nader groups -- the Nader Factor and Stop Nader -- have waged media efforts against him. The Nader Factor will launch a television ad today in New Mexico and Wisconsin, where Nader is gathering signatures, in which a voice-over states that "Ralph Nader is taking help from the right wing" as a bumper sticker reading "Bush-Nader '04" emerges on the screen.
While Republicans do not deny offering logistical support to Nader's petition efforts in several states, direct financial contributions from those who have also donated to Bush so far amount to $54,300, or 4 percent of the $1.5 million Nader has raised.
Others who have taken to Nader's cause include those who believe that attempts to block him undermine democratic principles.
"It is unprecedented, as far as I know to have a major party campaigning to prevent a candidate from simply being able to run, because it might hurt them in the election," said Harry Kresky, an attorney for the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, a think tank that has filed its own FEC complaint, accusing Democrats of improperly using public funds to try to stop Nader in several states.