ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s ballot access restrictions for alternative political parties stifle party development and limit the number of candidates they can support, the Maryland Green Party told a packed Court of Appeals Thursday.
The state requires candidates of officially recognized alternative parties, just like independent candidates, to collect signatures from 1 percent of voters before listing them on statewide ballots. To run for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller, an alternative party candidate would need about 30,000 signatures.
There are about 2.7 million registered Maryland voters.
“A political party without ballot access is like a racehorse without legs. We’re like a martini without gin,” said Frank M. Dunbaugh, Green Party attorney.
Since 1940, only two alternative party candidates, both for governor – from the Independent Party in 1966 and the American Party in 1970 – have made it onto statewide ballots. A federal court had to order the American Party candidate onto the ballot.
On the national level, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader ran in both the 1996 and 2000 elections, capturing less than 1 percent of the vote in the first election and less than 3 percent in the second.
Since the Maryland Green Party, with about 2,500 members, was officially recognized on Aug. 16, 2000, it has never put a candidate on a statewide ballot. While membership is growing, Dunbaugh said, people aren’t likely to join a party that doesn’t have ballot access.
To become a recognized political party, party members must collect 10,000 voter signatures on petitions in favor of forming a new party. They must also create a constitution and submit it to the Board of Elections for approval.
Once the state recognizes a party, it shouldn’t have to get separate petitions for each of its candidates, a process that would take about 125,000 hours, he said.
One of the seven appeals judges hearing the case asked Dunbaugh whether a party could use one petition for a slate of candidates.
Dunbaugh replied the law is unclear and he wouldn’t recommend using one petition at the risk of rejection by the election board.
Democrats and Republicans, the only political parties allowed to nominate their candidates by primary elections in Maryland, don’t have to overcome these same hurdles, he said.
The Green Party argued ballot restrictions violate voters’ rights to associate and organize dissenting viewpoints, as well as limit their choices.
The Board of Elections, however, argued these restrictions ensure that only candidates with “a significant modicum of support,” which is required by state law, get their names on the ballot.
“Voters do not support the Green Party,” said Michael D. Berman, deputy chief of litigation for the attorney general’s office.
When voters sign a petition in favor of forming another party, they’re not pledging their support for the party or the candidates, Berman said.
The Green Party’s claim that these restrictions are impossible to meet isn’t true, he said.
Since the election code was amended in January 1999, Brian Saunders of the Constitution Party successfully made it onto the ballot for the 8th Congressional District.
Before January 1999, candidates needed 3 percent of all voters to sign a petition to gain ballot access.
At that time, Green Party members, including one of the attorneys representing the party in the appeals case, supported the amendment, the Board of Elections noted in its brief to the court.
The 1-percent requirement keeps the ballot from being cluttered with candidates, which can cause voter confusion, Berman said.
“They have a right to keep the ballot from being cluttered,” Dunbaugh said. But, he said, they don’t have a right to regulate “a modicum of support.”
The case went straight from Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where a judge ruled in favor of the Board of Elections, to the Court of Appeals, bypassing the intermediate court because of the constitutional matters involved.
– 30 – CNS 11-29-01