On Ballot Signatures and Disenfranchisement

[I hadn't intended this post to be MY first post of the year, but so be it.]

A friend of mine posted a link to Virginia State Officials Confirm: Gingrich Campaign Being Investigated for ‘Illegal Acts’ recently. Apparently someone in Gingrich's campaign may have created 1500 allegedly fraudulent signatures. More than likely this will get a lot of play among left blogs as a Republican ACORN fraud.

I would love to go there and the pretzels the Republicans will be twisting themselves into to try to cover their keisters will be quite sweet. But, being a Pirate Party advocate and former Green, I want to take a step back.

Ballot access is an issue that is close to my heart, so when I hear that 1500 signatures were allegedly fraudulent, I start to wonder.

Getting on the ballot is difficult. I have been through three signature drives to get 10,000 valid voter signatures Massachusetts-wide. In 2002, we had at most three months to gather all of the signatures. That time we had slightly more than a handful of organizers who were paid. In 2000 and 2006, we had fewer staff to organize the signature drive. Most of the effort was done by volunteers.

Since many people put down the wrong address for where they are registered or write in Mickey Mouse, we always aimed for 15,000 raw signatures to be sure we had enough. If we were close, then we knew our signatures would get challenged and we would likely not get on the ballot.

Indeed, in 2004 in Pennsylvania, Ralph Nader did not get on the ballot when his signatures were challenged. His campaign gathered 51,273 signatures, about two times the 25,697 signatures required. Amazingly after the challenge, he had 18,818 remaining. If that wasn't bad enough, Pennsylvania's challenge process requires lawyers and judges to review every signature.

When Nader didn't have enough signatures to qualify, he got the privilege of being ordered to pay the cost of those judges and lawyers.  He had to pay over $89,000 to cover the cost of the challenge.  

Let me rephrase that.  He was ordered to pay over $89,000 for his own disenfranchisement.

It turns out the Democrats were using state house workers on the public dime to comb the petitions and find signatures to challenge. Highly illegal and completely unethical, but after news of it came out, Nader was still required to pay his fine.

In Nader's case, the judges in question called his signature drive fraudulent, though a more sober review noted that at most 1.3% could be termed fraudulent and he and his campaign were never charged with voter fraud.  At least one Democrat, however, was convicted of illegal activities in challenging his signatures.  Hopefully, there will be more who pay the price for disenfranchising Nader.

This process was repeated in 2006 when US Senate Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli filed 100,000 signatures. He needed over 67,000 signatures while the Republicans and Democrats needed only 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. His signatures got challenged and they were able to remove enough signatures to prevent the voters from having the opportunity to select him on the ballot. He was charged over $80,000 for being disenfranchised. [Reference] The Democrats illegally used state resources to challenge Romanelli's petitions as well.

Lets not forget that one of the ways Obama got his State Senate seat was to challenge the signatures of his opponents and get them knocked off the ballot. The Oklahoma ballot signature requirements are so high that there hasn't been a third party candidate in decades.

Darryl Perry has studied how our ballot access laws have aided incumbents since the states took over printing ballots and so deciding who could be on them. He compared the number of candidates in our elections and their probability of getting reelected with Canada, which has easier ballot access laws. The reelection rate since 1950 for the US House of Representatives is 85%, while that for the Canadian Parliament is 60%. That stat comes from a review of his Duopoly book in the January 2012 Ballot Access News.

It is certainly possible that one or more Gingrich staff people, volunteer or paid signature gatherer fraudulently signed 1500 voters on Gingrich's nomination papers.  It's also possible that Gingrich's campaign just didn't gather enough signatures to deal with the inevitable errors that voters make when signing nomination papers.

However, the next time someone gloats about a candidate committing "ballot fraud" , I always remember how many times those with power have used the ballot laws to keep voters from having the opportunity to vote for candidates who were willing to run.

Make it easier to get on the ballot and the "fraud" will go away.