By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
You know when you’re on your porch, and you notice a spider crawling by, but then you look closer and realize it’s not a black widow or a brown recluse, so it’s not poisonous, but then you wonder if maybe you could be wrong, so therefore it could be a threat, and plus it’s a nuisance? Those things multiply, and maybe they’ll get into the house, so you squash it just to be sure.
That’s kind of what the state’s establishment has done to independent candidates in Arkansas.
This past week, District Judge James Moody ruled in a case, Moore v. Martin, in favor of a 2013 law that requires independents to submit their required signatures – 3 percent of the voters in the last election, or 10,000 in statewide races – to the secretary of state by the end of the filing period. In a typical year, that’s the beginning of March.
Before the law was passed, independents could file at the same time as Democrats and Republicans and then collect their signatures while party candidates were campaigning for their May primaries.
The practical effect of the new law is that independents can’t survey the landscape like party candidates can do and then jump in the race. They must have already gathered their signatures to qualify for office by the same deadline that major party candidates sign up to run. They have to be walking the streets months in advance asking people to sign a petition. And instead of walking those streets in March and April as before, they now have to do it in January and February.
Except not this coming election. Because the Legislature moved next year’s primary elections to March 1, the filing deadline this year is Nov. 9. Independents have only 90 days to collect signatures, which means they would have to be beating the streets now for an election that won’t occur until November 2016.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, who ran for the state Legislature in 2012 as an independent, filed suit. Judge Moody agreed that the law creates a burden for independent candidates, but he accepted the state’s argument that it’s too difficult to verify those signatures in time, considering all the other things the state must do in an election cycle.
Which is a stretch. In 2014, there was one independent candidate for the Legislature, requiring the secretary of state’s office to verify only hundreds of signatures. In 2012, before the law was passed, there were seven. There’ve been a few other independent candidates run for other offices, but not many. Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office will verify 67,887 signatures for each voter initiative and 85,859 signatures for any constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in 2016.
What independents usually are is a nuisance for the establishment. In a given election, combined they represent a few thousand signatures that the secretary of state’s office has to verify. Meanwhile, for the major party candidates, they’re a variable they’d rather avoid dealing with. They’d rather just have one opponent, if it can’t be none.
I wish the halls of the Legislature and the Congress would become infested with independents scurrying around doing the people’s business without regard to party politics. But that’s not going to happen. Despite George Washington begging us to do otherwise, we’ve created a political system that almost guarantees that candidates will be a member of one of two parties. That’s the way it’s been for more than 200 years.
So why even bother with independents at all? Because there needs to be an option for candidates and voters who don’t agree with the two big parties or any of the smaller ones. The other reason is because the system needs an occasional nuisance – in fact, sometimes even a threat.
In the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote campaigning as an outsider on one issue: the need to reduce the national debt, which at that point was $4 trillion. In the years following that election, President Clinton and Congress actually sort of balanced the budget. Was Perot the only reason? No, but he certainly helped. He changed the conversation, and 19 percent was a number even the major parties couldn’t ignore.
No candidate since then – Republican, Democrat or other – has been so effective at calling attention to the national debt. Few have even really tried. It’s now more than $18 trillion.
I think we’re trying to squash the wrong problems.