Sunday, February 09, 2014

Neighbors of Arkansas Sues State Over Change in Ballot Access Laws

Note: I am a member of this group.

A grassroots group which helps Independent candidates running for public office is suing the state for recent changes to ballot access laws. Neighbors of Arkansas ( filed their suit in federal court this week. The complaint alleges that changes made to ballot access laws after the 2012 election cycle discriminate against independent candidates in comparison to candidates from the major parties, and that this difference in treatment is a violation of the 1st and 14th amendments.

Tom Mayfield of Elkins is a spokesman for the group. When asked about the group's purpose, Mayfield said that some members have a belief that national parties will always tend to get a life of their own and over time fail to represent the interests of the rank and file. Other members just don't care to associate with the major parties in their current state. Almost all of them think that the idea of routing candidates for state, or especially local, offices through a political party headquartered in Washington DC is counter-productive. “Why outsource the job of vetting political candidates to these out-of-state organizations? “ Mayfield asked rhetorically. “It doesn't make sense, it hasn't been working well for us, and its time politicians answered only to the folks back home, and not a political party.”

With regards to the reason for this lawsuit, Mayfield cited the changes in the law in 2013 making it harder for Independent candidates to get on the ballot after a record of eleven independent candidates filed for seats in the state legislature in 2012. “It is like the parties know that people are frustrated with them both, and they could either fix that by starting to listen to people, or they could just change the law so that no matter how fed up people are, they have to keep going through them. It seems like that is the course they are taking.”

Petitions signed by the voters are required in order for an Independent candidate to be placed on the ballot. The number of signatures varies depending on the size of the office sought, but the maximum for a state-wide office is 10,000. In the past, candidates could go file in the filing period and then go get the signatures. Now they are required to have the signatures with them when they file (March 3rd is the final filing day). They must obtain the signatures within a 90 day period, so that means signature gathering must now occur in the dead of Winter with reduced daylight hours, cold weather, and the Christmas holidays.

The suit asks the court to throw out the changes in the law which make citizens who seek public office subject to more restrictions and fewer options than those who obtain access via one of the two major parties. “One of the people in our suit ran as an Independent candidate last time, and he and his wife did not make the decision to run until the night before the last full day of the filing period. That guy (Mark Moore of Pea Ridge who garnered 39% of the vote in a bid for House Seat 95) could not make that same decision according to the law today that he made in 2012. Only people in the parties can make a last minute decision to file for the state legislature now, because now an independent would have to show up with about 400 voter signatures on a petition. In 2012 Mark got those after he filed.”

The state of Arkansas has lost numerous lawsuits with regard to ballot access in the last two decades, but Mayfield says that certain patterns seem to repeat themselves. “At one time signatures had to be turned in by March the 1st, and the courts ruled that was too early, so it was changed to May 1st for a few years (including 2012). Now the Republicans and Democrats in the legislature have moved it back to early March. I have a feeling the courts are not going to appreciate that.” said Mayfield.    


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