Editorial: Law adds to the burden on third parties

Last modified: 7/29/2014 1:00:19 AM
The United States has a rich history of third parties. In 1856, Millard Fillmore made a strong run for president on the Whig-American ticket. Fifty-six years later, Theodore Roosevelt captured 27 percent of the popular vote as the Progressive Party’s candidate. Ross Perot made his mark in 1992 and again, although to a lesser extent, in 1996 with the Reform Party.

But the number of votes won don’t tell the whole story. In local and national races, third-party candidates often contribute to an election by pushing the Republican and Democratic candidates on issues they might otherwise avoid. If they do it effectively, as Perot did in 1992, the system benefits.

Last week, it became a little harder for third parties to play that role in New Hampshire.

On Monday, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire over a change to state law that makes it more difficult for third parties to collect the signatures needed for inclusion on election ballots.

House Bill 1542, which became law last week, added this sentence to RSA 655:40: “Nomination papers shall be signed and dated in the year of the election.” Lawmakers called it a little housekeeping, but the Libertarian Party and the NHCLU call it backbreaking.

Here’s why: In order to appear on the ballot, a third party must meet one of two requirements. If the party’s candidate for governor or president wins 4 percent of the vote, the party gains a spot on the next ballot. The other, more common course is to collect signatures equaling 3 percent of the total vote in the previous election. Libertarians have managed to do that in the past, including in 2012, when more than 13,600 signatures were collected. As a result, the party was able to run a full slate of candidates that year.

But to accomplish the feat, the party began collecting signatures in 2011. With the change to state law enacted last week, that long process can’t begin until Jan. 1 of an election year. Because the nomination papers must be submitted to the offices of New Hampshire’s towns and cities by early August, that leaves just seven months for the party to collect the thousands of signatures it needs.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan told Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne that his office requested the change because if people sign their names too long before the election, there’s a bigger chance the person could die, move or forget they signed the petition at all.

But as the NHCLU argues convincingly in its lawsuit, the state’s regulatory interest in the added restriction is questionable.

“If anyone is to be harmed by use of ‘invalid’ nomination papers ‘due to death or relocation’ collected during the time frame before Jan. 1 of the election year, it is the third party seeking the nomination papers – not the state,” the lawsuit says.

The NHCLU goes on to make the point that the potential risks with “old” nomination papers means the third party needs to go beyond the 3 percent requirement to ensure that there will be enough valid signatures come early August.

While it’s doubtful that HB 1542 was intended to further marginalize third parties, the added language in effect does exactly that. The state must do what it can to limit the circus atmosphere of elections, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of reasonable inclusivity.

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