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Damn shames and legislative games 

How the Black-Morgan co-speakership killed the Electoral Fairness Act

You probably already know that North Carolina has some of the most absurdly restrictive ballot access laws in the country. Unusually early deadlines and high signature requirements combined to keep Ralph Nader off the state's ballot in 2000. The rules also keep Libertarians busy, forcing them to spend so much time and money collecting signatures that they have little left for building campaigns.

The reason is that two-party hold on the electoral process is particularly strong here. In 2002, any group trying to get an independent candidate listed on a statewide ballot had to gather 98,000 signatures--an extremely high requirement second only to California's. Placing a new party on the ballot required 58,000 signatures--again, higher than almost anywhere else. For comparison, Virginia and South Carolina require only 10,000 signatures to list an independent candidate or new party on their ballots. In Kentucky, it's 5,000 signatures. In Tennessee, it's 25.

Twenty-five.

But wait; there's more. Opponents of more open ballot access don't want you to know that until recently, North Carolina had a signature requirement dramatically lower than the one it has now. A 1994 essay by Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News (www.ballot-access.org), summarizes the history:

"[Ballot] restrictions did not emerge overnight. From 1888 to 1931, ballot-access laws were rather mild. ... During the 1930s, ballot-access laws became significantly restrictive, as they required new parties to gather more signatures and file for application earlier and earlier in the campaign year. Still, it was not until the 1960s that compliance with ballot-access laws became extremely difficult."

In North Carolina, the tightening arrived in the early 1980s. The state's signature requirement was raised from about 10,000 to over 50,000 in a deliberate attempt to make things harder for new parties. Blame John Anderson's independent presidential run against Reagan and Carter if you must. The point is that the state's unusually tough ballot access laws are a very recent invention.

Hold that thought.

Distraction from the Top
The Electoral Fairness Act would have returned North Carolina's signature requirement back to what it was 20 years ago--before the Republican and Democratic parties began playing with ballot rules to protect their share of the electorate. Introduced by Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) earlier this session, HB 867 appears to have been deliberately killed by entrenched interests in the state's two major parties.

Full credit for the demise goes to the House co-speakers, Democrat Jim Black and Republican Richard Morgan. The two power-brokers just plain refused to allow the bill to come up for discussion. How did they do it? By simply skipping the bill without comment each time it appeared on the calendar.

Never mind that HB 867 had attracted both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Never mind that it passed unanimously out of committee and stood a good chance of becoming law. Never mind the interest from voters across the political spectrum, from conservative Libertarian to socialist Green. And never mind that the co-speakers repeatedly assured interested parties that the bill would indeed be discussed. On April 27, for instance, co-speaker Morgan e-mailed Jennifer Medlock, a former Libertarian House candidate, to say that the bill "will soon be debated on the House floor."

Yeah, sure it will. Other citizens (including me) heard similar promises from Black's office, even as Black himself continued to silently skip over the bill.

It was a tag-team display simultaneously hilarious and bile-inducing. The two power-sharing political warhorses actually took turns ignoring HB 867, causing the bill's supporters to scramble in confusion during the days before the crossover deadline. Black and Morgan offered no explanation for the continued delay, which was made possible by bizarre rules in the House that give the speaker almost unlimited control over which bills get heard.

Libertarians and Greens are so incensed at the co-speakers' abuse of procedure to deny the bill a vote that they're protesting at the Legislative Building on May 20 (see below).

"It's too much concentrated power in one spot," says HB 867 sponsor John Blust, one of many legislators who are unhappy with the current system (and one of the few who are not afraid to talk about it). Blust wants to see a schedule in which bills can only be skipped if a majority of the chamber votes to skip them. Two longtime political observers even suggested that Blunt's outspokenness about the need for clear rules has angered the Great Co-Speakers in the past, and killing the Electoral Fairness Act was their revenge.

"One of the things I've always wanted to do is get it to where we're governed by the rules and not by individual whim," he says. "For one person to be able to say, 'That don't fly,' it opens all sorts of possibilities for abuse."

It's worth keeping in mind that the dictatorial trend Blust and others complain about has roots in the 1995 takeover of the House by state Republicans. It was during that first Republican-led session that the chairman of the Rules Committee (usually the speaker's right-hand person) was given extraordinary new powers to bottle up legislation. And who was the first chairman with those new, dictatorial powers? Richard Morgan, of course.

According to the July 1995 issue of North Carolina Insider, Morgan dramatically increased the use of parliamentary maneuvers to stifle debate during the first year Republicans controlled the House. Among other delightful strategies, Morgan often made substantial changes to bills without discussion, added unrelated measures to bills he didn't like and refused to tell anyone when specific bills would be debated.

Sound familiar? It is to Jim Black. He often uses similar tactics.

If the thought of these two men working together to control the House gives you pause, you're not alone. In February, conservative Rep. Sam Ellis (R-Wake) described the partnership like this: "They'll get along fine. They are two Vikings, raping and pillaging." The arrogance Black and Morgan displayed as they buried HB 867 certainly doesn't lessen that impression.

A few months ago, Morgan told The N&O he was "working real hard" at making the transition to a more open style of leadership. He told another reporter he'd be "serious on this trust issue."

Guess he's given up on that new leaf thing.

The logic of tough ballot access
As the legislature's crossover deadline loomed, the death-by-postponement strategy became clear. A staff member finally told me "the real reason" that Black was delaying was that he "wants to study the issue further." Study the issue? Was he not paying attention when the legislature dealt with the issue during the 2001 session? How about in 1999? Or 1997? How much more study does Black need on this one?

Meanwhile, Morgan revealed his hand in an e-mail to Dave Goree, the state Libertarian Party's ballot access director. For some reason, The News & Observer's Rob Christensen left out all the best bits in Morgan's explanation of why he blocked his colleagues' bill:

"I believe that the current threshold for establishment of a political party is sufficient. By requiring a minimum of two percent of active voters to sign a petition creating a political party, North Carolina maintains stability within its political system. Although there are some legitimate political parties in existence that have not yet met this threshold in North Carolina, there are even more parties that are illegitimate that this policy has been able to keep at bay.

The note is such a masterpiece of distortion it's difficult to choose a place to start dissecting it. Are there really that many "illegitimate parties" that strict ballot access laws help to "keep at bay"? If so, wouldn't we be seeing terrible problems with overcrowded ballots in states that have less strict rules, like Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee?

Again, Richard Winger spells it out, in the September 2001 issue of Ballot Access News:

"[N]o state which required more than 5,000 signatures ever had as many as 9 candidates on the ballot for a statewide partisan general election."

So much for a crisis waiting in the wings if we loosen North Carolina's ballot laws. From here, it's starting to look like Morgan's argument is either woefully ignorant or deliberately misleading. There doesn't seem to be a third option.

Morgan needs to explain why he thinks a state like North Carolina can't "maintain ... stability within its political system" without strict ballot access laws that were implemented only 20 years ago. Absent that, it's difficult not to see his real worry as fear of losing a particularly sweet two-party split of government power.

Just like the split he and Jim Black seem to have worked out in North Carolina. EndBlock

The Green and Libertarian Parties of North Carolina are joining forces to protest the Black/Morgan killing of the Electoral Fairness Act on Tuesday, May 20. Citizens are being asked to "flood the grounds" of the Legislative Building in Raleigh at 10 a.m. See www.lpnc.org and www.ncgreenparty.org for details.

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