FERGUSON: Georgia ballot access needs reform

November 1, 2013 

My last column was an open letter to Austin Scott (the representative from my district in the U.S. House) informing him that I would be voting for someone else in the next election cycle as part of my own personal “don’t re-elect anybody” campaign. However, it turns out I may have spoken a little too soon with that declaration.

By stating that I would vote for someone else, I was making an assumption that may very well prove to be incorrect. I was assuming there would be at least one other choice on the ballot in U.S. House District 8 contest next year, and I have since come to realize that is not at all a sure thing.

District 8 is one of the many Republican-friendly districts the GOP cobbled together when they won a majority in Georgia’s state government (undoing the equally gerrymandered work the Democrats had done when they ran things in the state.) It is seen as so unfriendly to Democrats that they didn’t even bother to offer a candidate here in 2012, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they skip the 2014 contest as well.

But that’s OK, because what I’d really like to see is an independent candidate on the ballot, someone who is not beholden to either of the two major parties and whose only allegiance is to the people of District 8 and to the country as a whole.

After doing some research in that area, I found more reason to despair. Turns out it is next to impossible to get on the ballot for a U.S. House race in Georgia if you are not running under the banner of one of the two major parties. Georgia has one of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country when it comes to House contests. The state legislature passed a law back in 1943 that requires independent or third party candidates to gather verified signatures from 5 percent of a district’s voting population to get their name on the ballot.

Five-percent may not sound like a lot until you look at the actual numbers. House District 8, for example, has a population of about 700,000 people. So you’d have to gather 35,000 verified signatures to get your name on the ballot in my district.

It’s an arbitrary and intentionally prohibitive rule, and it has served its purpose. No independent or third-party candidate has appeared on a U.S. House ballot in our state since that law was passed 70 years ago.

How does this ballot access restriction benefit the people of Georgia? It doesn’t. It is an unabashed defensive measure by the two major parties to ensure their duopoly on the political system. There is no other logical reason why an independent candidate would have to gather 35,000 signatures to appear on a ballot while a Democrat or Republican has to gather no signatures whatsoever.

Of course you don’t want 100 names on each ballot, so I agree that some sort of entry standard makes sense. I think paying the qualifying fee (which is over $5,000 for this office) and gathering a more reasonable number of signatures from district residents (say 1,000 names or so) would weed out people who were just looking to get their name on the ballot as a lark.

I plan on writing to my state representatives to let them know I’d like to see Georgia’s ballot access laws be made less restrictive, and I encourage you to do the same if you feel that leading the nation in ballot access restriction is not something to be proud of. If you don’t know who your state representatives are you can go to the website http://votesmart.org and enter your address to see who represents you in the state House and Senate.

It’s probably unlikely that the ballot access law can be changed before next year’s election, so must I give up on my dream to see an independent-minded candidate challenge Austin Scott next year? I don’t think so, and I’ll have more to say about it in my next column.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com

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