Friday, September 16, 2005

Signature Blues

An article in Thursday's Washington Post caught my eye just as I was about to turn the Metro section page to look at the obituaries. Given my current position on the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville and my continuing concerns about election law, the headline was sure to grab me: "D.C. Election Fraud Case Advances." I was unaware of any recent charges of election fraud in the Nation's Capital. Reading along, I realized this was an update on an old story. It began:

Three years after a petition scandal rocked the reelection campaign of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, prosecutors are moving forward with criminal charges against three campaign workers accused of violating city election laws.

* * *

The charges recall a tumultuous time for the mayor, who in 2002 was seeking his second term. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics took him off the Democratic primary ballot that year, saying that though he apparently had more than the 2,000 valid signatures that were required, most were collected by campaign workers who might have violated city election law. The board later levied a $277,700 fine against the mayor's campaign. Williams won the primary as a write-in candidate and easily won reelection.

By coincidence, soon after the petition problem emerged, I conducted an interview with Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, to explore that very topic. Here is that article, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on August 16, 2002:

Mayor Williams and the Ballot Access Situation
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Charlottesville Bureau Chief

The political surprise of the summer came when DC election officials denied incumbent Mayor Anthony Williams a place on the Democratic primary ballot, after political activists (both Republican and Democrat) found discrepancies and fraudulent signatures on the Mayor’s nominating petitions. Mayor Williams’ appeal to the courts failed, and he will seek the Democratic nomination for his reelection as a write-in candidate.

In order to look more deeply at how this situation could come about, The Metro Herald’s Rick Sincere interviewed Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter published in San Francisco (and available online at A recent article in the Washington Post described Winger as “America’s leading authority on ballot access.”

Here are Winger’s answers to ten questions posed by The Metro Herald:

The Metro Herald: Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., recently was denied a place on the District’s Democratic primary ballot because of flaws in his nomination petitions. Is this a unique situation? That is to say, are you aware of other cases in which incumbent candidates have failed to get on the ballot for either primary or general elections?

Richard Winger: I can’t think of any incumbent Democrats or Republicans who were ever left off the ballot as they tried to run for renomination before Mayor Williams. Generally when something bad happens to major party candidates, the law that caused the problem is quickly eased. For example, in 1990 the Democratic Party of Virginia lost its status as a qualified party, but the legislature was called into special session early in 1991, and the law that presented the problem for the Democratic Party was quickly changed.

The only incumbents that I can think of who couldn’t get their names on the ballot were the first Communist Party city councilman in New York City (he was elected in 1937 but his petitions were successfully challenged in 1939) and the Libertarian Party members of the Harris County, Texas, county Board of Education (elected in a nonpartisan election in 1981, the legislature changed the office to a partisan office, due for the next election in 1984; since the Libertarian Party of Texas failed to get on the ballot in 1984, its incumbents couldn’t run for reelection).

MH: To get on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in Washington requires 2,000 signatures. How does this compare to requirements in other cities?

RW: Washington, D.C.’s petition for mayoral candidates to run in a primary is more severe than in most cities. In most cities, candidates don’t even need a petition; instead they pay a filing fee.

MH: Some states have particularly burdensome ballot-access requirements. Could you offer some examples?

RW: The worst ballot access in the United States is the Georgia law for minor party and independent candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. It has existed since 1943. It has never been used by a minor party candidate and hasn’t been used by an independent candidate since 1964, and back in 1964 the law was somewhat more lenient than it is today.

MH: Alternatively, some states have rather liberal ballot-access laws. Do these laws result in crowded ballots or confusing ballots, as some proponents of stringent requirements argue?

RW: There have been crowded ballots in some states. But any state that requires at least 5,000 signatures for statewide independent or minor party candidates has never had a crowded ballot. In all history, no such state has ever had more than eight candidates on the ballot (including the major party nominees), except there were nine in Ohio in 1976 (5,000 signatures were required) and also New York has had some crowded ballots (while requiring 15,000) but only because that state allows candidates to appear on the ballot under two or even three party labels.

MH: Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, which do you think offers the best model for ballot-access laws?

RW: Delaware has the best law for minor-party ballot access. There are no petitions. Any group [that] has voter registration membership equal to one-twentieth of 1 percent is automatically on the general election ballot (it nominates by convention unless its membership is 5 percent of the number of registered voters).

MH: How do other democracies (for instance, Canada or the United Kingdom) deal with the issue of ballot access? Do they also require petitions, as in much of the United States, or do they use another method?

RW: The United Kingdom requires only 10 signatures to run for House of Commons. It also requires a filing fee of 500 pounds, but the money is returned if the candidate gets at least 5 percent of the vote. The only nations with sizeable petitions are nations [that] were once part of the Soviet Union.

MH: In the August 11th edition of the Washington Post, law professor Jamin Raskin suggests that nominating petitions and signature gathering should be replaced by another method, such as having candidates prove that they participated in a certain number of hours of community service. Do you think Raskin’s suggested replacements are workable?

RW: Raskin is right to criticize signature gathering. I would replace signature gathering with filing fees. Of course there must be an alternate method for people with no money. But when states offer a choice, 99 percent of all candidates choose the filing fee method.

MH: Are ballot-access laws designed to hobble third-party and independent candidates?

RW: In some states, yes. The worst states are Georgia, Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.

MH: The significant flaws in Mayor Williams’ petitions were discovered by Republican party activists, who brought them to the attention of DC election officials and the press. Do you think that challenges of nominating petitions by activists from another political party can escalate into a sort of arms race? Is it possible, for instance, that DC Democrats will seek revenge by challenging Republican candidates in future elections?

RW: I don’t know. I don’t believe in a challenge system. If a government requires signatures, the government ought to check them for validity itself. If it’s too much work to check them, then delete them from the law.

MH: Do you have any other comments on ballot-access laws that may shed light on the Mayor Williams case?

RW: The cost of counting all the write-ins that will be cast in the DC Democratic mayoral primary next month will be high. Tax money will be spent foolishly. By contrast, if DC has filing fees for ballot access, not only would the election cost less to administer, the city would even get a bit of revenue from the fees.

MH: Where can our readers learn more about ballot access and other election laws? Do you recommend any recent books or periodicals that deal with this subject?

RW: The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, published in 2000, has a great article about the history of ballot access laws in volume I.

I tried finding The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America on Amazon, but had no luck. Wikipedia says that it was published by Sharpe Reference in 2000 and edited by Immanuel Ness and James Ciment. Amazon does have a listing for Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, by Earl R. Kruschke, but that was published in 1991. They are clearly two different reference volumes. It's odd that the more recent book would be unlisted while the older one is available for purchase.

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