Third parties would face a lower hurdle in seeking a spot on North Carolina’s election ballot, under a bill that cleared a state House committee this morning. The measure also helps unaffiliated candidates and lowers the percentage of votes a candidate needs to win to avoid a primary runoff.

The House Elections and Ethics Law Committee voted 15-8 to approve Senate Bill 656, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017. The bill is scheduled to head next to the full House. The Senate approved its version of the measure, 49-0, in April.

“North Carolina has one of the most restrictive laws on the books as far as allowing third-party access,” said Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, the bill’s sponsor. “This will lower the threshold of what you need to be a party and to get on the ballot.”

Current state law requires political parties seeking ballot access to collect valid petition signatures equaling 2 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last election for governor. That’s about 93,000 signatures, House committee members learned during this morning’s debate. S.B. 656 lowers that requirement to 10,000 signatures.

Another change that relaxes current state restrictions involves the geographic distribution of petition signatures. Current state law requires that the political party collect at least 200 signatures from voters living within four of the state’s 13 congressional districts. S.B. 656 lowers that number to three districts.

The bill also lowers the threshold for unaffiliated candidates seeking statewide office. The current 2 percent requirement, roughly 93,000 petition signatures, applies to them as well. S.B. 656 lowers that number to 5,000 signatures. Unaffiliated candidates also would have to secure at least 200 signatures from three congressional districts, rather than the four districts spelled out in current state law.

Thresholds also drop for candidates seeking local or legislative offices.

“I think this opens up the ballot to having more people involved and more names on the ballot,” Brock said.

People running in multicandidate primary elections also would see a major change under provisions of S.B. 656. Current law requires them to win more than 40 percent of the vote in that primary to avoid the prospect of a runoff election. The bill lowers that threshold to 30 percent.

That provision prompted a question from Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, one of the House’s leaders on election law. “I know that there have been several House members that have talked about this in the past,” Lewis said. “We’ve tried to find: Is there a correct number? Would you speak to how you arrived at the 30 percent mark?”

The lower threshold would help cut down costs tied to runoff elections, Brock responded. He also offered a historical reference. “Honestly, I believe the 40 percent [standard], in my personal opinion, is a holdover from the old Jim Crow days.”

The Libertarian Party is the only third party with a regular spot on North Carolina’s ballot. State party chairman Brian Irving supports S.B. 656.

“This is an issue — access to the ballot — that Greens and Libertarians agree on,” Irving told the House committee. “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.”

If approved, the changes would take effect for 2018 elections.