North Carolina has an 'amazing history of going back and forth' with third parties
Thursday is the International Day of Democracy. It’s a United Nations-sponsored day, and many media organizations are highlighting stories about threats to democracy and examining laws and proposals across the nation. As part of this effort, WFAE is focusing on North Carolina’s laws for ballot access by third parties and unaffiliated candidates, and how they compare to other states.
One of the big controversies this election year was the Green Party’s effort to get on the ballot in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race. The state Board of Elections initially denied the party ballot access even though it had enough certified signatures to qualify. It made that decision in a party-line vote after Democratic efforts to keep the Greens off the ballot. The board reversed course, but the state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to stop the Greens. That lawsuit has since been dropped, and the Greens are on the ballot.
To dig deeper into the issue, WFAE's Marshall Terry spoke with Richard Winger. He has kept track of ballot access laws nationwide since 1985 as the editor and founder of Ballot Access News.
Marshall Terry: So, ballot access requirements for third parties are a source of frustration for groups like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. But, I understand North Carolina's laws are less restrictive than most states. Is that the case?
Richard Winger: It's a little better than the average state. North Carolina has an amazing history of going back and forth between being extremely hostile to minor parties or flipping and getting friendly. It's an amazing history.
Terry: Now, these days, in order to get a third party on the ballot, you have to get more than 13,000 signatures. How does that compare to other states, if North Carolina is a little more lenient than other states, as you say? What's it look like in other states?
Winger: Oh, the median is about a third of 1% of the last vote cast. And since North Carolina's one-fourth of 1% of the last vote cast, North Carolina is a little bit more favorable to minor parties than the typical state.
Terry: What state would you say has the worst laws regarding getting a third party on the ballot?
Winger: There's no comparison. The absolute worst ballot access law in the United States is in Georgia. The law is crazy, but for district offices, including the U.S. House, it is so severe that there has not been a minor party or independent candidate on the ballot in Georgia for the U.S. House since the law was passed in 1943.
Terry: What do you make of what happened in North Carolina this year with the Green Party?
Winger: I have to say the Democratic Party is mistaken when it automatically assumes that having the Green Party on the ballot or any left candidate automatically hurts them. There's plenty of objective evidence that that's not true.
First of all, it's bad for the image of the Democratic Party, which holds itself out as a pro-voting rights party, to go around trying to interfere with the voting rights of people who want to vote for minor parties.
And, I'll just mention one example. In 1948, that was the year Harry Truman was trying to get reelected against Thomas Dewey. And, everybody thought Thomas Dewey, the Republican, was going to win, especially when the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace, ran as a third-party candidate for president.
But, Sam Lubell, a very good pollster who later became a famous political scientist, studied that election very carefully, and he found that Henry Wallace helped Truman. He found that two million, mostly Catholic Democrats, had voted Republican in 1944 because they were fiercely anti-communist. And, in 1944, the Communist Political Association endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for reelection. But in 1948, these voters noticed the Communist Party was savagely attacking Harry Truman and plumping for Henry Wallace.
So, even though you could say Harry Truman lost a million votes to the Henry Wallace campaign, he gained two million voters who felt comfortable coming back to the Democratic Party.
Terry: Well, let's go back to unaffiliated candidates for a moment. How tough is it for them to get on the ballot in North Carolina?
Winger: It is so tough. In the entire history of government-printed ballots in North Carolina, there has never been an independent candidate for governor. There has never been an independent candidate for U.S. Senate. There's never been an independent candidate on the ballot for U.S. House in North Carolina. It's just way too many signatures.
Paradoxically, the legislature makes far more signatures required for independent candidates than for minor parties, which makes no sense at all.
Terry: How many signatures?
Winger: The independent statewide petition is one and a half percent of the number of registered voters. And for the U.S. House, it's also 1 1/2%. But for the legislature, it's 4%. So, it's even quite rare for an independent candidate for the legislature to get on in North Carolina, although a few have done it. So right now it's about, like you said, about 13,000 signatures for a statewide minor party, but about 60,000 for a statewide independent.
Terry: How does that compare to other states as far as unaffiliated candidates? Is it, I guess, it's not as tough in some other states?
Winger: Oh, it's one of the worst in the country. If we're talking about statewide independent candidates for office, other than the president, and for president, they're typically easier, the only states harder than North Carolina for independents on a percentage basis are Alabama and Wyoming.
Terry: You followed these issues for ballot access news since 1985. You are now 79. I'm curious — why are you so passionate about this issue?
Winger: Well, it goes way back before 1985, when I was in college. I got very interested in ballot access law because I was interested in studying election returns for third parties. And, I thought it was weird that third parties were on the ballot in some states but not others. And that's when I started looking into the ballot access laws. And, when you know something is true and you really, really do know it, and you see that most policymakers don't know it, it gives you an urge to try to do something about it.
You know, I read a quote once. I don't know who said it. "The most utter misery is when you have complete knowledge and no power when you know something is wrong and you know how to fix it. But you have a lot of power to make the change that's necessary." That's very frustrating, but it keeps you going. And we have had a lot of successes. About half the states have eased their ballot access laws in the last 30 years.
Terry: That's Richard Winger, editor and founder of Ballot Access News. He spoke to us from San Francisco.
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