Friday, April 04, 2014

"It's my party, and I'll keep you off the ballot if I want to..."

Scot Lehigh has an interesting column in today's Boston Globe (click here to read) calling for Massachusetts Republicans and Democrats to scrap their internal rules requiring candidates to garner at least 15 percent of delegates at party conventions.

We might not agree with all of his conclusions, but we think he's definitely on to something.

It's fair enough for state parties to require that any candidate who wants to run under the party banner in a partisan primary receive some modest level of support at the party's convention. From a party perspective, candidates shouldn't have the right to run as a "Republican" or a "Democrat" unless there's some popular consensus as to that claim, and notwithstanding whether the particular candidate is the party's favored choice.

But, because of state election laws, the parties' 15 percent rules effectively terminate the right of someone who seeks a partisan nomination to run for office if they fall short of the threshold at the convention. We think that's unfair.

Take, as a prime example, the situation of Mark Fisher at the recent GOP convention.

As a previously-registered Republican voter, Fisher had until March 4, 2014 to unenroll from a party in order to run as a non-party ("independent" or "unenrolled") candidate for Governor. As a Republican, Fisher opted not to do that and to seek the Republican nomination at the state primary in September. Having made that choice, Fisher paid $25,000 to attend the Republican state convention on March 22, 2014 and seek the 15 percent vote of delegates required by party rules to appear as a Republican on the state primary ballot. Assuming for purposes of this blog post that the Mass GOP is correct and Fisher failed to get the required 15 percent of the vote (we'll leave that controversy to another day), he then is barred from running for Governor as a Republican in 2014. And, because of the way state election law is written, he's therefore barred from running for Governor at all.

We think it's reasonable for the Mass GOP to refuse to allow Fisher to call himself a "Republican candidate" on the state primary ballot and to seek the party's nomination if he in fact didn't get the 15 percent convention vote. But, since the convention took place after the deadline for Fisher to change his party registration or unenroll, and since he can't run as a Republican, state law says he can't continue his campaign for Governor this year at all -- even if he successfully collects ten thousand signatures and meets all other constitutional and legal requirements to run for that office. His only real alternative would be to mount a write-in primary campaign.

We think that is patently unfair result, particularly since the 15 percent rule is arbitrary and could be changed by either of the state's two leading parties at will. A far better system would be to allow Fisher and candidates like him some additional time after an unsuccessful convention vote to unenroll from a party and collect a fresh batch of the required signatures to run as an unenrolled candidate if desired. Under such a system, Fisher wouldn't be allowed to call himself a "Republican", but he would at least be able to continue his campaign as an unenrolled candidate if he wanted to, and not just be relegated to write-in status. The road ahead for such a candidate still would not be easy, but at least there wouldn't be a legal roadblock to their candidacy.

The state constitution mentions certain requirements to run for public office. Getting 15 percent of the vote at a party convention isn't part of those requirements, for good reason. In a democracy, anyone should be able to run for office so long as they are old enough, etc. And while it's fair enough for parties to decide their own membership based on rules they set up, allowing the state's two-party system to impose additional requirements for office outside the legal system is improper. If the constitution bars the state legislature from establishing term limits by law and thereby imposing extra-constitutional requirements for running for office, then we can't see why parties should be able to achieve the same result by virtue of an anomaly in state election laws.

It's one thing for the state parties to decide who can run under their banners, but it's improper for the parties to effectively bar candidates from seeking a favorable vote at the ballot box just because they fail to get a favorable vote within a party convention hall. That's a decision that should be left squarely between candidates and voters, even if the candidate gets only a small percentage of the eventual vote.

Why? It's simple. That's how democracy works.

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