RALEIGH — After the North Carolina Supreme Court shot them down, third parties just got good news from the legislative branch. The House passed a bill that would make it less burdensome for minor parties to get on the ballot.
The Electoral Freedom Act — House Bill 32 — reduces the number of signatures third parties must collect to secure a place on a statewide ballot from about 85,000 to about 10,000.
Previously, new parties and unaffiliated candidates had to get petitions signed by registered voters equal to 2 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election before running for a statewide office. Under the Electoral Freedom Act, they would have to get petitions signed by 0.25 percent of registered voters in the state.
The bill faced opposition from supporters of the existing two-party structure. But it has gained allies from Republicans and Democrats, who say a little extra competition is good for the political process.
“We’re an established two-party state,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, at a committee hearing on the bill in March. “We’re not a parliament. I just question why we want to allow every little party to be on the ballot.”
Because “competition is healthy,” answered one of the bill’s four primary sponsors, Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson.
“If you have a Hardee’s, you notice a McDonalds comes right next door,” she said. “It makes existing parties better and more focused on what their platforms are and on carrying out their missions.”
Another bill sponsor, Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said allowing more parties could increase voter participation.
Starnes held his position on the House floor June 7. “I like the two-party system,” he said. “I like the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s a contest of philosophies. It’s a contest of ideas.”
Lowering the ballot access bar could “give credibility to some fringe factions on both sides of the spectrum, and I don’t know that the public’s interest is best served by that,” Starnes said.
Starnes also said he was concerned about long, unwieldy ballots.
At a committee meeting June 3, he said the 10,000-signature “threshold is so low it’s not even a threshold.”
“So basically you’re saying you want anybody that wants to be a party to be a party in this state?” Starnes asked bill sponsors.
On the House floor, Starnes expressed concern that the bill would allow unaffiliated candidates to run for non-statewide office by collecting only about 500 signatures in his district.
Bill sponsor Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, pointed out that Kentucky and Virginia require only 100 and 125 signatures respectively for statewide office, and neither state has had more than four candidates on any ballot. Tennessee, which requires a mere 25 signatures, never has had more than nine candidates.
Rep. Glen Bradley, R-Franklin — another sponsor — argued that North Carolina had the second-most restrictive ballot access laws in the country.
“We’ve seen that other states that have even looser requirements than we are proposing do not get ballot chaos, they get a more refined debate,” Bradley said. “A principled dissent is absolutely critical to putting forward the debate that is our American right.”
House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, said he didn’t care how many candidates ended up on the ballot.
“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said.
Among the bill’s supporters are the other minor parties — the Conservative Party, the Constitution Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Modern Whig Party, and the Reform Party — along with political advocacy and public policy groups, including NC Campaign for Liberty, NC Center for Voter Education, NC Common Cause, Democracy NC, Fair Vote, The Free and Equal Foundation, Free the Vote NC, the John Locke Foundation, Republican Liberty Caucus of NC, ACLU of NC, the State Bar Association, and the NC League of Women Voters.
“When political parties and public policy groups of such divergent views unite in a common cause, it clearly attests to the fact that ballot access reform is not a special interest group issue,” Farmer-Butterfield said.
The bill passed the House 66-50. To become law, it must pass the Senate and then go to Gov. Bev Perdue.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.