WASHINGTON – When the Maryland Senate considers a bill to change the state’s ballot access rules, Barbara Robson will be following the proceedings.
Robson, 46, of Potomac, is trying to run for Maryland’s 8th District seat in Congress as a member of the Natural Law Party. But to get on the November general election ballot, she needs to collect signatures of at least 3 percent of the district’s registered voters.
Some say that is not an easy task. “Maryland is the second most hostile state” for getting third-party candidates for Congress on the ballot, said Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, a newsletter that monitors states’ ballot access laws.
Florida is the worst, Winger said.
“It’s fairly easy to get presidential candidates on the ballot in Maryland,” said Winger, who said he has monitored ballot access issues across the country for more than 30 years. “Everything else is … a nightmare.”
No third-party candidates for Congress or president have qualified yet for Maryland’s ballot in the 1996 elections.
To qualify as a third party in Maryland, the party must obtain 10,000 signatures of registered Maryland voters by the first Monday in August of the election year.
Once this requirement is met, the party can then place a presidential and vice presidential candidate on the ballot.
But to field a candidate for any other office, such as Congress or the Maryland legislature, the party must obtain signatures of at least 3 percent of the voters eligible to vote for that particular office.
Such a requirement can be difficult to meet, Winger said. Usually, one has to obtain at least 30 percent more signatures to assure a sufficient number of valid signatures.
Robson must obtain about 10,000 signatures in Montgomery County’s 8th District, according to Donna Duncan, administrative officer of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws.
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, has submitted a bill to ease the ballot access restrictions. Last year, a similar bill was approved by a Senate committee in a 9-2 vote, only to be defeated in the Senate by one vote.
Under his bill, third-party candidates would not need to meet any petition requirements once the party itself qualified under the 10,000-signature rule.
Independent candiates not affiliated with any party would need to collect the lesser of 1 percent or 20,000 signatures of registered voters.
The Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee holds hearings on the bill Feb. 29.
If current law remains in effect for this election, Winger said he thinks no third party will make it onto the ballot for a congressional race in Maryland.
Robson, a health educator for a general practitioner, disagreed. “I expect to get on the ballot without a problem,” she said.
Nevertheless, she acknowledged that collecting the signatures can be tough. “I think it’s an unconstitutional requirement. I think it’s unfair,” she said.
“Republicans and Democrats don’t have to do it at all,” she said.
After spending a month collecting signatures on her own, Robson is negotiating with a firm to collect the signatures. She estimates it may cost around $15,000.
To pay the fee, Robson says she will use funds raised in her campaign. Thus far, she has raised more than $4,000, she said.
If her campaign fails to raise sufficient funds to pay the cost of collecting the signatures, she will make up the difference out of her own pocket, she said.
Winger said one problem is that many of the signatures are from people ineligible to vote in that district.
“Borders in districts wriggle around,” he said. “Half the people don’t know the district they’re in.”
For example, Lorenzo Gaztanaga tried to run in the 1995 Baltimore City Council elections as a Libertarian in the 3rd District. He said he collected more than 700 extra signatures.
But the city election board ruled he came up short. Many signatures were from people who were not registered to vote in the district.
“I certainly submitted way more than I needed,” Gaztanaga said. When the election board told him he did not have enough valid signatures, “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
But Gaztanaga has not given up. “I intend to try again. You bet,” he said.
Members of at least five national third parties have expressed an interest in qualifying presidential candidates on the Maryland ballot. It is unclear, however, how many intend to tackle the task of qualifying a candidate for a congressional, state or local race.
Along with the Natural Law and Libertarian parties, other parties whose officials said they may try to participate in Maryland’s elections are: the Reform Party, the Patriot Party, the Green Party, the New Party and the U.S. Taxpayers Party.
Robson, a first-time candidate, said she wants to run on the Natural Law Party ticket because she is impressed with its preventive approach to problems.
“It’s the first time a party represents what I believe in,” she said.
The party supports the use of non-mainstream medicine and is interested in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy resources and environmental issues, she said. -30-