Leading Libertarian says the more the merrier on N.C. ballots
You might expect Libertarians to feel protective of the spot they’ve won as the only third party on North Carolina’s election ballot.
If so, you’ve never discussed the issue with Brian Irving.
The immediate past chairman of the N.C. Libertarian Party, Irving has spent years advocating changes in state law that would lower the threshold for other parties seeking easier ballot access.
The Republican-led General Assembly responded this fall by approving Senate Bill 656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the measure, objecting to provisions that eliminated primary elections in state judicial races. The state Senate voted Monday evening to override the veto. The House could follow suit today.
The language about judicial primaries represents less than half of the bill. Much of the rest of the measure lowers thresholds for third parties and unaffiliated candidates who want to secure a spot in the November election.
Rather than collect petition signatures topping 2 percent of the number of votes cast for the most recent gubernatorial election, new political parties would see that requirement drop to 0.25 percent. Using the 2016 election’s 4.7 million votes as an example, the requirement would drop from 94,221 petition signatures to 11,778.
The law also loosens a geographic diversity requirement. Rather than requiring at least 200 signatures from registered voters in four congressional districts, S.B. 656 assumes that three distinct congressional districts would suffice.
And political parties can avoid the petition process altogether if they can prove that they placed a candidate on the general election ballot in at least 35 states (70 percent) during the previous presidential election.
These new parties could keep their ballot slots if they win at least 2 percent of the votes in North Carolina’s presidential or gubernatorial races. That’s a holdover from current state law.
As John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood noted recently, “it’s remarkable and praiseworthy that Republican lawmakers would support these ballot-access changes, which are unlikely to advance their partisan interests.”
Equally noteworthy is the fact that a leading state Libertarian supports the changes. Libertarians used the existing, more stringent, petition signature requirement to gain ballot access in 2008. They secured access that year by surpassing the 2 percent vote total requirement. Libertarians have maintained access through similar electoral performances in 2012 and 2016. (Libertarian Lon Cecil won 102,977 votes, or 2.2 percent, in the 2016 governor’s race.)
No other third party has followed the same path successfully in North Carolina. Irving hopes they can avoid that costly, time-consuming process.
In 2011, for example, he served as a primary proponent of the Free the Vote Coalition. In addition to Libertarians, that group included members of the Conservative, Constitution, Green, and Modern Whig parties. (Then-JLF legal and regulatory expert Daren Bakst also endorsed the group’s goals.)
More recently, Irving offered the only public comments during a June 21 N.C. House committee meeting on an earlier version of S.B. 656. “Now this is an issue — access to the ballot — that Greens and Libertarians agree on,” Irving said at the time. “When you have people from different political perspectives — we have Democracy NC and the John Locke Foundation also supporting ballot-access reform — when you have an issue like that, then that tells you that this is something people want.”
“Thirty-six of our 50 states have a lower requirement for getting third parties and independent candidates on the ballot,” Irving added. “So North Carolina is No. 1 as being the most restrictive.”
A common objection to loosening ballot access involves fear of an overly long election ballot. “For most of North Carolina’s history, the requirement for an independent candidate or a party to get on the ballot was around 10,000 signatures,” Irving countered. “At most, North Carolina had eight candidates on a ballot. So the problem with ballot clutter is not the number of candidates; it’s the number of offices that we elect.”
“Democracy is about choice,” he concluded, shortly before the committee endorsed the measure and sent it to the full House.
Most lawmakers chose to support some version of S.B. 656 earlier this year. The Senate approved the original proposal, 49-0, in April. The House approved its own version, 107-7, two months later.
Once the final version of the bill incorporated measures eliminating judicial election primaries, votes fell along party lines. Only two Democrats voted with the majority that approved the measure, 70-44, in the House (with two Republicans voting no). No Democrats voted yes in the Senate, while a single Republican voted no as the measure secured a 30-16 tally in that chamber. (Monday’s veto override carried by a 26-15 margin in the Senate.)
Despite the earlier Democratic support, Irving sees another reason for that party to oppose change. “It is the most significant ballot access reform bill in [North Carolina]’s modern history,” Irving wrote to Carolina Journal after Cooper vetoed the final bill. “Opposition to the judicial primary provision is just a diversion. The Democrats fear opposition from the Greens, as Democratic leader Darren Jackson said on the House floor during the debate.”
Nor does Irving buy Cooper’s veto message that S.B. 656 “takes away the right of the people to vote for the judges of their choice.”
“The governor’s veto reasoning is contradictory,” Irving responds. “This bill expands the right of the people to vote for people of their choice for all offices.”
And if Irving has his way, the people will see many more choices on their ballot in the years to come.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.