LEGISLATURE BLOCKS EFFORT TO BROADEN BALLOT ACCESS

For all the grumbling heard about the two major parties in our state, third-party and independent candidates are rare sights on Alabama ballots. You’re about as likely to spot Nick Saban at Toomer’s Corner.

That’s not just happenstance; it’s decidedly by design. Alabama has some of the strictest ballot access laws in the country, with requirements that make it extremely difficult for anyone not seeking office as a Democrat or a Republican to even make it on the ballot, let alone be elected.

The major parties like it that way, and why wouldn’t they? Alabama elections are effectively a closed shop. The two parties face competition from each other, but they have little cause for worry about anyone else.

Yet it is clear that the two major parties do not have a collective monopoly on good ideas or fresh approaches or even sensible collaboration on the problems facing Alabama. The legislative session that ended this week underscored that once again.

Our state doubtless could benefit from some differing viewpoints, from other policy positions that at the very least could spur renewed debate on important issues and perhaps break through the ideological logjams that so often impede meaningful progress.

That’s why it was disappointing to see, yet again, the failure of legislation that would revise Alabama’s needlessly restrictive ballot access laws. To his credit, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has been trying to get the bill passed for several years, but he’s up against a daunting wall of opposition built around the two-party status quo.

Under current law, an independent or third-party candidate faces tremendous obstacles in getting on the ballot. Democratic and Republican candidates are automatically on the ballot, but a third-party candidate gets such placement only if his or her party received at least 20 percent of the vote in the last general election. That’s an extraordinarily high threshold.

An independent candidate must obtain petition signatures totaling at least 3 percent of the votes cast in the last general election race for governor. In the 2010 election, there were 1,485,324 votes cast for governor, meaning that an independent candidate for statewide office would need 44,560 signatures of qualified electors. In reality, the candidate would need to gather far more signatures than that in order to be sure of having the necessary number of valid signatures. It’s a huge barrier to the ballot.

Of course, practicality demands that some reasonable threshold be established. It can’t be so low that any group of grousers at the local coffeeshop can pass around a petition and put a pal on the ballot. At the same time, there’s no justification for setting the threshold so high as to essentially exclude everyone except the Democrats and Republicans.

Ward’s bill lowered the petition requirement to 1.5 percent for statewide candidates. Using the 2010 numbers, that would require 22,280 signatures — not an easy target, but not out of the realm of reality either.

We urge Ward to keep trying and to bring back the bill in next year’s session. In the meantime, Alabamians will be well justified in asking their legislators to explain their opposition to it.

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