America’s political leaders are generally quick to criticize other countries for various abuses and irregularities. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, has traveled extensively to help monitor elections abroad. And late last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had rigged recent elections there. Both Carter and Clinton are great statesmen, but any time our country criticizes another for putting up barriers to a free and open election, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black.
Take for instance last week’s Christmas Eve surprise which Newt Gingrich likened to the attack on Pearl Harbor. On that day, Gingrich, Rick Perry and others were notified by the Virginia State Board of Elections that they had fallen short of the required number of signatures for getting on the Old Dominion’s Super Tuesday ballot.
Virginia requires Presidential candidates to collect 10,000 signatures. Gingrich claims he had 11,000. But the law also requires each candidate to collect at least 400 signatures from each of the state’s 11 Congressional districts, and that’s where Newt seemed to fall short. The resourceful former House speaker quickly announced he would mount a write-in campaign. But then the other shoe dropped. Virginia does not allow voters to write in the name of candidates in a presidential primary. A fuming Gingrich campaign spokesperson responded, “Only a failed system excludes four out of the six major candidates seeking access to the ballot.” And so, come March 6, only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul’s names will appear on the Virginia GOP ballot. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was also upset, telling supporters via e-mail, “Virginia won’t be nearly as fought over as it should be in the midst of such a wide-open nomination contest. Our own laws have reduced our relevance.”
As arbitrary as Virginia’s election laws seem, they are fairly typical of what happens across the country, and that includes Washington DC, where rules set down by the two major party committees themselves can be exclusionary. Let’s don’t forget the hotly contested Democratic presidential primary race in 2008. Coming down the stretch, Hillary swept Florida and Michigan, and could have been in position to win the eventual nomination, except that the DNC refused to seat her delegates because those two states had voted out of turn. As unfair as all this seems to Republicans and Democrats, it’s far worse for anyone trying to run for president as an independent or third-party candidate.
Back in 2006, consumer advocate and perennial fringe party presidential candidate Ralph Nader wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “In no other Western democracy do third-party or independent candidates confront more obstacles and exclusions to a competitive process than in the United States.” Ralph is right. In Germany, for example, any party that receives more than 5 percent of the vote receives a proportional number of legislators in Parliament. If that had been the case in 1992, Ross Perot’s movement (which I supported) would have controlled nearly 20 percent of Congress.
Instead, Republican and Democratic state power brokers make it difficult for independents to gain ballot access. In Alabama an independent candidate for president must gather 41,000 signatures; in New York, 50,000; and here in North Carolina, between 80,000 and 100,000 signatures are required for a third-party person to get his or her name on the ballot. It’s no wonder that in 2004, only five incumbent congressmen were defeated. And it’s why Nader refers to our political system as a “veritable two-party elected dictatorship.”
It also might explain why eligible voters stay away from the polls in droves. According to the Coalition for Free and Open Elections, people don’t vote because they don’t think they have a choice, and that there is not much difference between the two major parties. That hasn’t always been the case. History tells us that third parties have been the catalyst behind such social change as abolition of slavery and women’s right to vote. But today, candidates who are not identified as either Republican or Democrat are looked upon as having no credibility. Bernie Sanders of Vermont being the exception.
Perhaps the Virginia debacle is just a case of ‘what goes around comes around’. Maybe some of the modern-day barriers and restrictions to the electoral process are starting to backfire on those who created them. How ironic. And, speaking of irony, Virginia’s state motto is Sic Semper Tyrannis, or “Thus Always to Tyrants.” It’s a phrase that stands for fighting against abuses of power, kind of like when someone tries to stop someone else from getting on a ballot. Then again, Virginia’s laws might just be there to protect us against men who are likely to act like tyrants if given the opportunity.
Sic Semper Newt.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).