Taking stock of third parties, independents

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Three events have occurred the past two weeks that are noteworthy, particularly for the growing number of voters who call themselves independents and the small percentage who actually vote for candidates who are not Republicans or Democrats.

First, on May 29, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill moving Arkansas’ 2016 primary elections from May to March 1. The stated goal was to include Arkansas early with other Southern states in the so-called “SEC primary” so the state would have more of a say in who the Democrats and Republicans nominate for president. It might help Mike Huckabee in his campaign a little by giving him an early state win.

A consequence is that challengers have less time to decide if they want to run against incumbents. That’s particularly the case for independents, who unlike party-affiliated candidates must collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. Under a bill passed in 2013, independents must submit their signatures by the end of the filing period. This election, that would be November, so they must begin collecting signatures in August for an election that won’t occur for another 15 months.

Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, who ran as an independent for the state House of Representatives in 2012, says the 2013 law requiring independents to file so early is unfair and unconstitutional. After all, it gives them the same deadline to qualify for the ballot after collecting signatures that it gives party candidates to merely sign up with their filing fee. When the primary is in May, independents must collect signatures in the dead of winter. The election before the law’s passage, seven independent candidates ran for the state Legislature, including Moore, who won 39 percent of the vote in a two-person race. In 2014 after the law was passed, only one independent ran for that body.

Moore wants a return to the old law, which allowed independents to file first and then collect their signatures. He’s filed a lawsuit and says legal precedents are on his side. His day in court is July 27.

Second, Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, ironically the co-sponsor of the law Moore is suing to end, announced June 2 that he himself is now an independent and no longer a Republican. So now the 135-member Legislature has only 134 Republicans and Democrats.

The third-term legislator, known for being quite outspoken, has not given a reason for his switch other than to say it would enable him to better serve his constituents. He was a strong opponent of moving the primary to March, arguing that it was unfair to candidates and their families.

Finally, just hours after Bell’s announcement, the Libertarian Party of Arkansas submitted 15,709 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, far more than the 10,000 signatures it needed to qualify for the 2016 election as a “new” party. Arkansas law requires it to do so because its candidate for governor did not receive 3 percent of the vote in the last election. Under state law, if the Libertarians’ presidential candidate does not win 3 percent in 2016, they’ll have to collect signatures again for 2018.

Libertarians call themselves the “party of principle,” and that principle is that they want much less government. They would cut all federal government programs significantly if not completely, including Social Security and Medicare, and they also would cut defense spending while legalizing marijuana.

The party’s newly elected chairman, economist Dr. Michael Pakko, points out that every Arkansas voter had at least nine Libertarians on the ballot in 2014, including all congressional races and all state constitutional offices. In the statewide races, no Libertarian candidate won more than 6.4 percent. A numbers guy, Pakko knows the party is not ready to win major elections, but he says the party is growing and will be a viable alternative if enough voters ever decide they’ve had enough of the major parties.

The way the American political system is set up almost guarantees a two-party system, despite the fact that parties are not mentioned in the Constitution and despite George Washington imploring his fellow Founding Fathers not to succumb to party politics.

America’s economic system, meanwhile, is designed to offer unlimited choices. In the cereal aisle I have dozens of viable alternatives.

I don’t want that many choices in the voting booth. But it seems like the political system could learn from the economic system, and give me more than two.

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