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NHCLU lawsuit targets procedure for third-party access to ballot

Last modified: 7/23/2014 12:14:04 AM
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal challenge to a change in state law that shortens the time frame for third parties to collect the necessary signatures to get on the ballot.

The suit was filed yesterday on behalf of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire against Secretary of State Bill Gardner in district court.

Under state law, a third party can be on the ballot if it meets one of two requirements: Its candidate for governor or president secures 4 percent of the vote in the previous election or it collects signatures equaling 3 percent of the total vote in the previous election. In the past, there was no time limit on when those signatures had to be collected. But this year the Legislature changed the law to say all signatures must be collected in the year of the election.

The change passed with little attention or fanfare and was described as a “housekeeping” measure requested by the secretary of state’s office. But the NHCLU said January through August is not enough time for third parties to gather the more than 20,000 signatures needed and still use their resources to engage in campaigning.

The law went into effect yesterday. The Libertarian Party is not seeking signatures for the 2014 election but plans to for the 2016 election. In the suit, the NHCLU asks the court to find the Jan. 1 date unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth amendments and to stop the state from enforcing it.

“A third party under this law needs to sit on the sidelines during the odd year and wait until January 1 to actually start collecting signatures,” said Gilles Bissonette, staff attorney for the NHCLU. “At the end of the day what this lawsuit is really about is challenging a law that limits voter choice and protects major parties from competition.”

In 2000 and 2012, the Libertarian Party collected enough signatures to get on the ballot, but in both of those years the signing began in 1999 and 2011, Bissonette said. Candidates can file to run under any political party, regardless of whether that party is officially on the ballot. But those candidates must submit a certain number of signatures – 3,000 for president or governor – to run in a third party that’s not on the ballot.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the office asked for the change because there needs to be a reasonable time limit on when parties can collect signatures. If people sign their names too far before the election, their signatures could become obsolete if they move, die or simply forget they signed the petition and sign another party’s petition as well.

“The fresher they are, I think, the easier it is on the local election officials that have to approve them and the easier it is on the memory of the voters that may have ended up signing the petitions,” Scanlan said.

A United States district court in Rhode Island that ruled on a similar law found the state of Rhode Island hadn’t provided a “legitimate regulatory interest” for putting the time restriction in place. In that ruling, the court called a Jan. 1 start date an “enormous speed bump on the path to party recognition.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)


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