Georgia set to keep harsh ballot access law

mlee@macon.comMarch 1, 2012 

ATLANTA -- In most states, independent and third-party candidates have to leap some hurdles to put their names in front of voters.

In Georgia, the barriers build up to a wall.

A proposed rewrite of ballot laws now seems likely to overlook a key committee’s advice and leave the biggest brick untouched.

“If I wanted to run as an independent for the Bibb County Commission chair’s job,” said Macon businessman Tom Wagoner, “I was required by law to get a petition signed by 4,500 registered voters in the county.”

Anyone who wants to run for county or district elected office has to get signatures from 5 percent of their prospective voters -- people registered during the previous election. Getting on a statewide ballot, for governor or a U.S. Senate seat for example, would take about 58,000 signatures, 1 percent of Georgia’s registered voters.

It’s illegal to pass the petition hand to hand at any kind of office or gathering; the candidate or their designate must witness every single pen stroke. Petitions must be on sheets of paper “of uniform size.” Signers must be willing to give their address and must be careful to sign just as their voter access card is signed. Initialing the petition is not allowed, and the petition must be notarized.

State Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, said he was told he cannot canvass in front of a grocery store because alcohol is sold inside. And an independent can only run for city office if that city has its own local law allowing it.

“There are things I don’t like about the Democratic Party, there are things I don’t like about the Republican Party,” Wagoner said.

But the access laws made him feel as if he was forced to choose a side or go home. He decided to run as a Republican.

“It’s sad that it’s that way. It shouldn’t be that way,” he said.

But if he had been willing to buy an independent spot on the ballot, he could have had it for about $10,000.

There are companies and organizations that gather signatures and guarantee compliance for a price. Wagoner was quoted $2 per signature and advised to commission 5,000 signatures as insurance against those that would fail Georgia standards.

Lowering the barriers

The signature quota is probably too much, according to a study organized by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

The blue ribbon panel of election officials, politicians and political party representatives recommended calculating 5 percent by numbers of likely voters, not total eligible voters. That would cut the quota by about 25 percent.

“It sounds like something, but once you understand how bad Georgia is, it’s not that big of a deal,” says Garland Favorito of VOTER GA, a group that campaigns for voting transparency.

His organization is not coming out in favor of the 25 percent cut. What they prefer is House Bill 494, which would eliminate all petitioning for all offices. Getting on the ballot would require only a filing fee, which in small cities can be as low as $35 for municipal ballots and tops out at about $5,200 for congressional races.

Georgia is in the running with North Carolina and South Carolina for most restrictive ballots, and the most onerous signature quotas, said Richard Winger, an open elections activist and editor of Ballot Access News.

“It’s typical that states require a petition,” he said. But states such as Tennessee requires only 25 signatures for some races and their ballots sometimes get a little full. One U.S. House race had nine names on the ballot.

And “there are frivolous candidates,” Winger said, “but they tend to want to run for president.”

Some states, he adds, are lax about verifying the signatures. In states such as Colorado, it’s acceptable to just leave a petition on a bulletin board for anyone to sign.

Compliance cost

Kidd, the sole independent in the state Legislature, had to collect about 1,200 signatures to return to the ballot this year. He gathered about 1,500, just to be sure.

“It’s pretty difficult, to be honest,” said Kidd, who authored the zero-signature proposal in House Bill 494.

County election staff would get a break if there were no petitions. Right now, they must compare every signature to voter registration cards and throw out ones that don’t match exactly. If they find something that seems fraudulent, the Secretary of State’s Office can step in to help get to the bottom of it.

Kidd says he thinks there were inspectors all over Baldwin County when 17 of his signatures were flagged for what he said were simple errors like a husband signing for a wife who wasn’t wearing her glasses.

It would be easier and cheaper to simply end petitioning, opponents say.

But after initial signs that the state Legislature would pass the 25 percent cut, it now looks dead.

It’s been stripped out of an omnibus update of voting laws which was approved by a state House Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

There’s no problem with the merit of the proposal, said Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, but he removed it on the grounds that ballot access activists are contacting legislators and saying, sometimes “angrily,” that they want more than a 25 percent cut.

“I decided as well as some others, OK, if you’re accusing us of doing nothing, fine, we’ll do nothing,” he told the committee as he suggested leaving it behind. After the hearing, Hamilton said he’d like to “find the right balance” on the signature quota.

The committee unanimously supported his move to shift the other parts of the omnibus law to House Bill 899, which will carry them through the Legislature.

Hamilton said he’ll commit to holding a hearing on a ballot access bill next year if Kidd files one.

House Bill 899 is en route to the Rules Committee. It must pass the state House and Senate by the time the session ends in late March to be sent to the governor for his signature.

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