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Will Sanders have to register as a Democrat to run in N.H.? Probably

Last modified: 7/14/2015 6:13:26 PM
Soon after Bernie Sanders – ever-quick to remind you that he’s “the longest serving independent in congressional history” – announced his plans to run for president in the Democratic primary for 2016, a headline showed up on CNN: “Potential roadblock for Bernie Sanders rises in New Hampshire.”

That potential roadblock? The state’s presidential primary ballot rules, which require prospective candidates to affirm their status as a registered Democrat or Republican. Right now, those are the only two parties legally recognized by the state in the presidential or state primary.

But a few days later, neither Sanders nor the state’s Democratic Party seem too worried about that obstacle. Asked yesterday morning whether he’s given any thought as to how to deal with New Hampshire’s rules, Sanders didn’t explicitly say he would register as a Democrat when asked – but he said, confidently, “We’re going to fulfill all of the rules.”

“I made the decision that the best way to be effective as a campaign, the best way to win is to do it through the Democratic primary process,” Sanders said, before leaving a house party that attracted close to 100 supporters in Manchester. “We will meet all of the requirements of all of the states, including New Hampshire. We will fulfill all of the requirements.”

When a reporter asked again, to clarify whether he would register as a Democrat, Sanders responded, “We’ll do what we have to do.”

“We’re going to be on the ballot in 50 states,” Sanders added. “You don’t win unless you do that.”

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, in a statement offered on Friday, said his organization “will work to satisfy any concerns of the New Hampshire Secretary of State” to make sure Sanders makes it onto the state’s Democratic primary ballot.

“We welcome Senator Sanders to the New Hampshire presidential primary,” Buckley said in a statement. “New Hampshire Democrats are excited to meet the candidates and hear about how we can build on the economic progress we’ve made over the past six years and continue to expand opportunities for New Hampshire’s middle class families.”

Getting on the ballot

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, when asked on Thursday about Sanders’s eligibility in the New Hampshire primary, didn’t comment directly on the prospective candidate but referred instead to the state laws around voting and candidacy.

In New Hampshire, Gardner said, “only legal parties get to have ballots printed in the primary for the voters of their party, and the state does that printing.”

At the moment, only the Democratic and Republican parties are officially recognized by the state. State law stipulates that a party has to have received at least 4 percent “of the total number of votes cast” in the preceding general election race for governor or U.S. Senate.

“We, for the last several elections have had two legal parties,” Gardner said. “Some years ago we had three because libertarians were a legal party.”

To get on a political party’s ballot in New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls have to file declarations of candidacy with the secretary of state’s office, in which they “swear under penalties of perjury” that they are qualified to run for president and “that I am a registered member of the __________ party.” As noted in the state law governing filing procedures, “The name of any person shall not be printed upon the ballot of any party for a primary unless he or she is a registered member of that party”

The secretary of state’s office, Gardner said, doesn’t independently review the information in the declarations and generally takes candidates at their word.

“When someone files, we accept the filing as truthful,” Gardner said. “If we are presented with factual information to the contrary, then we will deal with that.”

What’s the point in having these rules? For one, Gardner said, it has to do with what actually happens on voting day. Even though New Hampshire, in particular, has a high number of “undeclared” voters, they still have to choose to vote on either a Republican or a Democratic ballot when they show up to vote in an election.

“You can walk into the polling place as an undeclared voter, but you’re not given a ballot unless you declare a party affiliation first,” Gardner said.

Still, in recent years, people in New Hampshire and elsewhere have raised concerns about rules that limit access to elections to members of the two major political parties. The basic question that comes up at the heart of many of these discussions was encapsulated in a 2011 debate held as part of the ongoing Intelligence Squared series: “Is The Two-Party System Making U.S. Ungovernable?”

Last year, closer to home, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (representing the Libertarian Party) challenged a new state law that could make it more difficult for outside parties to appear on the state’s ballots.

If a third party wanted to formally appear on the general election ballot but didn’t get the 4 percent vote required in the previous election, it could – in the past – collect enough signatures to add up to 3 percent of the votes in that previous election. Before 2014, as previously reported, there wasn’t a time limit on when those signatures had to be collected. But lawmakers changed the requirements last year to require a party to collect those signatures in the year of its sought-after general election.

A judge in December ruled against the state’s motion to dismiss the suit filed by the ACLU on the Libertarian Party’s behalf, and litigation is ongoing. Summary judgment motions on the case are due this week, according to online court filings.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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