By: Amanda Swafford
We constantly complain there aren’t enough good candidates running for office. We see others hold the proverbial clothespin firmly on their nose and vote for candidates they really don’t like. Unless we have decided to totally disengage from the system, we all do it at some point. In Georgia, such behavior is essentially required thanks to our unfair and discriminatory ballot access laws.
Our election laws in Georgia set up barriers that make it almost impossible for anyone to run as a candidate who doesn’t identify or feel represented by the Republican or Democrat parties. Consequently, if you are independent, not only must you raise money against an entrenched political system but you must also overcome other obstacles just to get on the ballot.
In January of this year, Representative John Pezold (R-133) filed House Bill 58, a bill which reforms Georgia’s ballot access laws for third party and independent candidates. This bill is a reincarnation of a bill originally filed by Speaker of the House David Ralston at the end of the 2005 session. House Bill 58 changes a law that’s been in place since 1943 and reduces the number of signatures an independent or third party candidate must get in order to run for most offices in Georgia. The bill primarily impacts local, partisan races such as elections for Board of Education, County Commission, State House, State Senate and similar races. The text of House Bill 58 can be read here. Statewide races like Governor, US Senate and Secretary of State won’t be impacted much by House Bill 58 since Georgia’s largest third party, the Libertarian Party of Georgia, already has statewide ballot access without the need to petition for signatures.
In a nutshell, the bill reduces the number of signatures needed in local races from 5% of every registered voter to 2% of those voters who actually voted the last time the particular race in question was on the ballot. It’s well known if you pull a list of registered voters from the Secretary of State’s office and then mark out all the people who never or rarely vote, you aren’t left with much of a list! As a general rule, voter turnout in our elections is dismal. We can save the discussion for why that may be. The point is the number of people in any community who are registered to vote versus those who consistently go and vote is very different. For most State House races, that’s often thousands of people, if not more! Changing the measuring stick from a pool of registered voters to the actual voters, quite frankly, changes the game in Georgia politics.
Yet, people often ask why ballot access matters if a candidate can’t even get 5% of the people to put them on the ballot to start with. First, there’s the basic question of fairness. No Republican or Democrat ever has to go through such a litmus test. There are many Republicans and Democrats who run that could never meet the same signature requirements we ask independents to meet but we put them on the ballot anyway with no questions asked. Secondly, ballot access comes down to money. It takes thousands of dollars to run even a small municipal race now. When we force an Independent or 3rd Party candidate to jump through discriminatory and often subjective election laws, they must spend thousands of dollars before they can even get out of the gate. Meanwhile, their opponents have been able to use money from the start to buy ads, hire staff and find volunteers. Those opponents can use their money to win the race, not collect signatures.
Ballot access is also critically important to party purity. With the current laws in place, candidates will fight the path of least resistance and qualify on the ballot with the party that has the best chance of winning or can help them accomplish whatever their other goals may be. Party philosophy and principles will likely have little to do with their decision to run as a “member” of a certain party. Commissioner Chuck, a former elected Republican, has written about this here on this site. So if you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should absolutely care about ballot access and work to reform our ballot access laws. Otherwise, your party brand will continue to become more diluted.
There is currently a strong effort underway to pass House Bill 58. As a candidate, I have petitioned for signatures many times and ballot access is an issue close to me as it is to almost every independent. Obviously, when you take the fight to the wolves who are guarding the hen house, you need resources to do it. Take a look at the crowd funding site that has been set up on Go Fund Me and consider donating a few extra dollars to help out this cause. On the Go Fund Me site, you can read more on the history of Georgia’s election laws and find out exactly how few candidates most of us had to choose from this past November in Georgia’s State House and State Senate races. Be sure to click the link “See All Updates” at the bottom of the most recent page in order to see everything we have posted so far on that site.
Stay tuned for another article soon providing a more in-depth look at just how important ballot access is to even something like a local SPLOST referendum where candidates aren’t even on the ballot.