Rep. Paul Miller (D-Durham) introduced the Electoral Fairness Act in February and it went to the House floor for a vote at the end of the legislative session. The bill attempted to make it easier for third parties to be recognized and get on the ballot.
But the bill died when, at 9 p.m. on Aug. 23, an amendment was proposed that effectively gutted the bill. The House added the amendment and passed the bill in a 1 a.m. roll-call vote that actually made access worse. The main forces behind killing the bill were moderate Democrats, fearful that Green and Libertarian Party votes would come at their expense.
The bill now moves to the Judiciary I committee in the Senate. Sen. Janet Cowell (D-Wake) sits on the committee and echoed House Democrats' concerns.
"There are practical considerations that have to be weighed," she says. "The question is: Do you knowingly hand over the majority to the Republicans?"
In the meantime, the Libertarian Party of North Carolina filed suit last week challenging the existing ballot-access law. Current law says political parties must get 10 percent of the total votes cast in either presidential or gubernatorial races to be on the ballot the following year. If the party doesn't reach the vote requirement, it must get signatures from 2 percent of voters who went to the polls in the previous election by June 1 of the following year. To get on the next N.C. ballot, that amounts to about 107,000 signatures.
According to Ballot Access News Editor Richard Winger, who has testified as an expert witness in federal ballot access cases and submitted an affidavit for the Libertarian Party's upcoming lawsuit, North Carolina has the second toughest signature requirement in the country. Oklahoma is first, requiring 3 percent.
Winger said North Carolina's 10 percent of votes rule is also among the most rigorous in the nation. Of states with similar rules, the median is 2 percent. Forty states have a percentage rule, but only 10 of those restrict it to governor and president's races, where third parties rarely have a viable candidate.
Miller, along with two Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, filed the bill to improve ballot access in February. The first version of the Electoral Fairness Act, also known as HB88, called for the vote requirement to be lowered to 2 percent and the signature requirement to one-half percent.
By the final roll-call vote at 1 a.m. on Aug. 24, the amendment proposed by Rep. Phillip Haire (D-Sylva) changed the vote requirement to 7 percent and returned the signature rule to 2 percent. The major change is that the signatures would have to be collected by April 1, instead of June 1 as the current rule specifies.
Winger said the amendment "essentially nullifies the purpose of the bill."
According to Sean Haugh, executive director of the state Libertarian Party, his members are receiving letters saying they are no longer registered to vote. "You can't treat certain voters one way and other voters another way," he says. "The Democrats and Republicans get special treatment, but all voters need to be treated equally."
Elena Everett, chair of the N.C. Green Party, said third parties need "significant outside support" to get on the ballot. "Money shouldn't buy access," she says. "The people of North Carolina should be able to freely choose their political affiliation."
The Libertarians filed a lawsuit last Wednesday challenging existing ballot rules. Haugh said he hopes the suit can "strike down the current process to get and stay on the ballot." The lawsuit is based on guarantees in the state constitution to free elections and free association. If won, the suit could require a rewrite of current ballot-access rules by the General Assembly.
The Libertarian Party had two candidates running for city council seats, one in Charlotte and the other in Winston-Salem, who've been decertified along with the rest of the party and taken off the ballot. The suit will seek a temporary injunction to allow the two to run for the city offices. There is also a Libertarian running in Raleigh's mayoral race.
Everett says the Green Party is considering joining the suit. "I hope the lawsuit will bring public pressure to this issue, instead of letting the legislature sweep it under the carpet. The General Assembly needs to do what's fair. We hoped they would do it on their own, but they're not."