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Crashing the party 

Attention Republicans and Democrats: You’re still in power. A lawsuit over the number of signatures required for third parties to be listed on the North Carolina ballot will go to trial later this spring.

Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback Jr. told the small, but packed Wake County courtroom that “personally I think 5,000 or 10,000 signatures should be enough, the legislature hasn’t seen that it’s sufficient.” He chose not to rule on the constitutionality of the state ballot access law, and instead sent the case to trial.

A year ago, the state Green and Libertarian parties sued the State Board of Elections, contending that North Carolina’s ballot access laws are unconstitutional. North Carolina has among the most restrictive regulations in the country. It requires third parties to collect 70,000 petition signatures of currently registered voters, a number equivalent to 2 percent of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election. However, canvassers collect at least 100,000 signatures because inevitably local boards of election challenge the validity of some signatures and toss them out.

In addition, noted attorney Michael Crowell, representing the Libertarians, the number of required signatures will continue to increase, as North Carolina’s population grows. “The evil of the 2 percent is that it will keep going up.”

The Libertarian Party has made on the ballot several times, most recently, in 2004. However, it is expensive to hire professional canvassers to conduct the petition drive, about $1 per signature.

Robert Elliot, cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Greens and the Libertarians, which have elected officials in other states, “aren’t going away. They have a platform of ideas and are two legitimate political parties.”

The state argued that lowering the bar on ballot access requirements would invite rogue parties to run, thus cluttering the ballot and confusing voters. Nonetheless, from 1929-1981, parties had to collect just 10,000 signatures; in one election cycle, the limit was reduced to 5,000. Only in the early ’80s, when the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party appeared on the ballot, did the state legislature, pass a law upping the requirements.

Alec Peters of the N.C. Attorney General’s office countered that North Carolina elects upwards of 10 executive offices, which already crowds the ballot. He pointed out that several states have set 2 percent to 5 percent signature thresholds. “That requirement is constitutional,” Peters said, citing rulings in other court cases. “Whether a different requirement may be set is a matter of policy. The courts can’t get into the business of deciding the cut off.”

Yet, it is unlikely that Republicans and Democrats would allow a third party to gain enough traction to shed votes from them. In 2006, a bill wound through the General Assembly that would have eased the ballot access restrictions. It passed the House and Senate, but was gutted in the wee hours before it passage.

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