It has been an intensely divisive time in the North Carolina General Assembly—with disagreements on the budget, LGBT rights, and private nuisance lawsuits against hog farms to name a few. Yet there seems to be near unanimity in the legislature on at least one issue: ballot access.
A bill to make it easier for third-party candidates to participate in elections in North Carolina is poised to pass possibly as soon as next week when lawmakers have scheduled a special session.
That has representatives of organizations like North Carolina’s Constitution Party excited.
“North Carolina is an independent thinking state and I think people are ready for more choices and more ideas,” said Kevin Hayes, Vice Chairman of North Carolina’s Constitution Party. A lot of times a minor political party or independent candidate may not necessarily win but they influence policy.”
With a paid statewide membership of a couple of hundred people or so, it has been impossible for the Constitution Party to muster the support needed under current law to get on state ballots.
“It kills the ability to build a party. You cannot function as a party without the ability to run candidates,” Hayes said.
Currently, to get on the ballot, a party’s candidate for governor must have received at least two percent of the vote in the previous election – or, a party must collect signatures from a number of qualified voters equal to two percent of the total number of people who voted for governor in the last election – or about 94,000 signatures.
“Even a professional petitioner can only get a couple hundred a day and they’re getting paid three or four dollars a signature so, you know, it's just not that easy,” Hayes added.
Hayes said the effort to expand ballot access has made allies of people with divergent political views.
“I personally have signed a Green Party petition, I’ve signed a Libertarian Party petition in the past, you know, just because I support their right to be on the ballot,” he said.
Indeed, there is even bipartisan support in the General Assembly for expanding ballot access.
“If any reputable organization did a poll on this I guarantee you that it would poll very high," Republican Representative Jon Hardister said.”
Hardister is House Majority Whip and a supporter of the bill to expand ballot access.
"The public would strongly support this and I can tell you right now that the fastest growing voter demographic are unaffiliated voters,” he said.
According to data from the State Board of Elections, a little more than one-third of the registered voters in North Carolina are Democrats. Republicans make up a little less than one-third with unaffiliated voters right behind them.
“Allow the voters to have more choices, more ideas being debated,” Hardister added.
A conference committee of two senators and two house members is working to iron out some differences in how the current legislation would lower the threshold for new parties as well as independent, or unaffiliated, candidates.
The house would require a number of signatures equal to a quarter percent of the total number of people who cast votes for governor in the most recent election--or a little under 12,000 - the senate version would require fewer signatures.
Michael Trudeau, vice chairman of North Carolina’s Green Party, said his party would have met either of the proposed requirements in the last election.
“In the last cycle we collected about 12,000 signatures,” Trudeau said.
But Trudeau harbors no illusions about what has helped push this bill further than any ballot access efforts in the past.
“I suspect that the Republicans feel they have competition from the Libertarian Party,” he said.
The Libertarian Party qualified for North Carolina ballots after their candidate, Mike Munger, garnered more than two percent of the vote for governor in 2008.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson also sees the GOP’s sudden interest in expanding ballot access as a political ploy.
“The Republicans believe that the Green Party will be the one party that will be able to qualify and they believe they’ll take votes from the Democratic Party,” Jackson said.
So Jackson had some reservations about the current bill when it was in committee. But key changes—and widespread support for the measure—have brought him around.
The senate would require independents to collect signatures from 5,000 qualified voters to get on the ballot—the house version has a much higher bar, equal to around 70,000 signatures.
Jackson said he also is pleased with a key change the bill would make to how primary runoffs are determined.
Under current law when a primary candidate fails to garner at least 40 percent of the vote there must be runoff.
In the past, that law was sometimes used to keep black candidates with the most votes in a primary from winning because a single white candidate would get all the white voters to coalesce around his candidacy in the runoff. The new law would lower the requirement to avoid a runoff to 30 percent of the vote.
The widely-held belief is the House and Senate will reach an agreement on the threshold and the legislation will pass before the end of the year, either in a special session scheduled to start on August 3, or later, in a September special session.
If it does, it will relieve North Carolina of a dubious distinction when it comes to letting new parties and unaffiliated candidates onto state ballots.
“North Carolina requires substantially more signatures than any other state in the country,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a print and online publication devoted to tracking and advocating for efforts to expand third-party participation in elections.
Winger began publishing his newsletter in the 1980s. He noted that North Carolina was not always so restrictive when it came to ballot access.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, North Carolina required 10,000 qualified voter signatures to get a party onto the ballot. That all changed, however, after a Marxist, Socialist party got onto the ballot. That is when lawmakers jacked up the threshold, Winger said.
Now political calculations are guiding legislators to lower the bar once again.