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Struggles for third party candidates

America is the land where any kid can grow up to be president. But it helps if that kid is a Democrat or Republican.

Third party and independent candidates have found it difficult to even get on the ballot, let alone be elected to office.

When a special election was called to fill the vacant 5th District seat of the late U.S. Representative Paul Gillmor, libertarian Mike Smitley knew it would be a challenge to break into the race.

To campaign as a Libertarian candidate, a non-recognized political party in the State of Ohio, Smitley would have needed to gather 2,306 valid voter signatures. Yet, for major party candidates, it only takes 50 signatures to appear on the primary ballot.

This overwhelming signature requirement was why Smitley choose to compete in Tuesday’s primary as a Republican.

‘It would have been a major obstacle to overcome, just to get my name on the ballot,’ Smitley said.

The inordinate number of signatures independents and non-recognized parties have to collect is just one example of how the American political system works to discourage third parties from competing.

The election process itself has a natural bias against smaller parties, said Melissa Miller, assistant professor of political science at the University.

America has a winner-take-all system that makes it hard for third parties to grow gradually, slowly picking up a few seats with each election. This differs from other countries, like Germany, where each party gets at least a few seats in proportion to the number of votes it received.

‘In the U.S. getting 10 or 12 percent of the vote means nothing – you don’t get any seats,’ Miller said. ‘People are reluctant to vote for these parties for fear of throwing their votes away.’

But in addition to the natural barriers against fledgling parties, the two major parties work to put up additional roadblocks, such as the excessive signature requirement Smitley faced.

‘Republicans and Democrats control the legislatures,’ Miller said. ‘They create the election laws and often write them in their favor.’

One such law concerning the recognition of new political parties were recently overturned in Ohio for violating the First Amendment rights of third parties.

In 2006, the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a section of the Ohio Revised Code that required non-recognized parties to gather more than 40,000 signatures and submit them a full year before the actual election.

The law stated any party that didn’t receive at least 5 percent of the vote in the state’s most recent election for governor would have to submit a petition 120 days before the presidential primary, which, in Ohio, means they would have to be submitted sometime in November of the year preceding the general election. The petition had to contain the signatures of at least 1 percent of all those who voted in the most recent election for governor or president.

‘We felt the state had set the bar too high,’ said Jeremiah Arn, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party of Ohio. The LPO brought the original lawsuit against the Ohio Secretary of State, the state’s chief elections officer.

The court agreed the law put too heavy of a burden on third parties.

In the court’s written opinion, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote that, by requiring petitions to be submitted before the major parties have even declared their presidential nominees, it is made too difficult to attract supporters. She said supporters typically turn to third parties when they become dissatisfied with each of the major parties.

‘The requirement that a fledgling political party rally support more than a year in advance of an election, when the major party candidates are not known and the majority of the country is not focused on the election, is an exceedingly difficult task,’ Gibbons wrote.

This early-signature deadline is compounded by the cost of collecting the signatures.

Because parties typically pay petition gatherers, Arn estimates it would cost the party about a $1.50 to $2 per signature.

The court ruled these barriers amounted to a violation of the First Amendment right to assemble, calling Ohio’s process for recognizing third parties the most burdensome in the country.

Since the laws concerning the recognition of political parties have not yet been rewritten by the state legislature, the process is currently governed by special rules put in place by the Secretary of State, which cut the signature requirement in half and pushed the deadline back 20 days.

Although he appreciates the attempted compromise, Arn said the rules need further revision.

‘We’d like to see ballot access laws more like in Florida and Iowa, where the statewide signature requirement is only about 5,000,’ he said. ‘Ballot access needs to be fair to everyone.’

But although stiff requirements for ballot access may seem unfair, they can be crucial to maintaining a stable government, said Mark Weaver, who teaches election law at the University of Akron law school.

Weaver said Ohio’s laws needed to be changed, but said limiting ballot access keeps parties from being formed on a whim, creating volatile legislatures comprised of multiple parties and coalitions.

By meeting somewhat stringent ballot requirements, it ensures that there are several ‘big-tent’ parties that encompass the broad interest of most voters. Having numerous small parties would dilute political passions, he said.

‘I think [Ohio’s] requirements are going to change – they need to be changed,’ Weaver said. ‘But we aren’t going to have a European system with lots of small parties. The American political system is what it is.

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