Last October, Senate Bill 656 was passed in the General Assembly, drastically lowering the requirements for so-called minor parties to gain ballot access in statewide and local partisan elections.
As a result, several parties of varying ideology have set about qualifying for ballot access in North Carolina this year, and appear poised to succeed in time for the 2018 elections — if an ongoing dispute in Raleigh regarding the composition of the State Board of Elections is resolved in time.
Candidates running for partisan office in North Carolina currently have three options for affiliation: one of the two major parties, Democrat or Republican, or the one minor party, Libertarian. If a candidate identifies as a member of any other party, the name of that party doesn’t appear on the ballot.
While meant to prevent elections from turning into a frustrating, frivolous mess consisting of dozens of self-proclaimed political parties with little to no actual support, the unrealistic and unattainable ballot access requirements in many states reinforce the two-party system, making it hard for smaller parties with less resources to qualify for ballot access.
To gain that access, some states require cash but most all require signatures; gathering thousands of signatures takes lots of time, which is also the same thing as lots of cash.
Senate Bill 656, however, lowered the bar on the signature requirement, and also added a new way for minor parties to gain ballot access.
For the first time in the state, if a minor party had a candidate on the 2016 General Election ballot in at least 35 states, those parties henceforth could be included on North Carolina ballots.
It’s the signature requirement, however, that has minor parties excited about the bill’s passage.
“Prior to (the new law’s passage), it was the most restrictive ballot access law in the country, requiring 98,000 signatures, or 2 percent of the registered voters in the last election,” said Camille McCarthy, co-chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the N.C. Green Party. “Now it’s 11,000.”
Any registered N.C. voter can sign the petition, which simply asserts that such minor parties should be allowed on the ballot; it doesn’t obligate you to vote for them, it doesn’t put you on a mailing list, and it doesn’t change your existing voter registration or political affiliation.
Aside from the actual number of signatures, which is 11,925, the petitions must also contain signatures of at least 200 voters from three — previously four — separate congressional districts.
At an average of 10 signatures per hour, it would take 9,800 hours of work to acquire 98,000 signatures; paid at N.C.’s minimum wage, that effort would cost $71,050, not including materials like clipboards, pens or printing.
To put that in perspective, it would take a staff of nine people six months of full-time work to accomplish the task.
At the more attainable 11,000-signature requirement, only 1,100 hours of work — one person, full-time, for six months — would be needed, at a cost of $7,975.
“Last time, we ended up with about 15,000 to 20,000 valid signatures,” McCarthy said. “That took four years. We know that we can get to 11,000 because we did get over that number. The number we have now is definitely doable.”
The party’s website says that it’s already garnered more than 5,100 signatures, and is looking to raise $5,000 to support the effort.
If McCarthy and the Greens are successful, it will level their playing field somewhat, giving voters a better idea of who’s who on their ballots, and who stands for what.
“So this petition drive would allow us to run people in elections that have the word ‘Green’ next to their name, the same way that people have ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ next to their name on the ballot,” she said.
But what does “Green” mean?
“The Green party realizes that the environment is under attack,” said Bob Carson, another member of the WNC Greens. “The future for our young folks is under attack. We’re looking to promote the values of peace, ecology, justice and democracy, and the established political parties are not dealing with the environmental problems that are facing us very critically right now.”
Aside from its environmental positions, the Green Party’s platform trends towards the progressive policies of the Democratic Party, which is currently the world’s oldest voter-based political party.
Left-leaning groups, however, aren’t the only ones seeking ballot access, suggesting that there’s also dissatisfaction with the status quo on the right.
“I’ve been a Republican all my life. I’m 58 years old. I registered to vote Republican when I was in the Air Force. When I turned of age, the first person I ever voted for was Ronald Reagan,” said Eddie Cabe, who was helping to gather signatures for the Constitution Party at the Asheville Gun and Knife Show Jan. 13. “I’ve just seen the corruption that’s come down on both the Republicans and the Democrats.”
Cabe’s a fair example of major party disillusionment by voters who nowadays define themselves more by principles than by party.
“I was removed from the party for ‘party disloyalty,’ basically because I called out a [Republican Haywood County] commissioner for not following the party platform,” he said. “It seems like the Republican Party has just abandoned the people. They’ve turned into an establishment. They’ve turned into part of the swamp.”
The Constitution Party, like the Green Party, offers up a slightly different but substantially similar platform to its major-party counterpart, the Republican Party.
It’s pro-life, pro-gun, anti-U.N. and supports traditional marriage; it also opposes socialized health care, the minimum wage, and calls upon governments to “cease their attacks on the religious liberties of the people and the states, regardless of the forum in which these liberties are exercised.”
Cabe said that message seems to be resonating with voters — at least, in that place, at that time.
“Well, we’re at a gun show so you’ve got a lot of conservative, constitutional people, and the vast majority of them, when they look at the Constitution Party platform — God, liberty, freedom, First Amendment, Second Amendment — once they see what it’s all about, most everyone that I’ve asked has agreed to sign,” he said. “We’re gathering signatures pretty good.”
McCarthy said that when the Greens attempt to gather signatures at polling places or community festivals, the response has mostly been favorable, albeit subject to place and time.
“In general, people are either friendly or say ‘No thank you,’ but some, depending where in the state you are, sometimes it’s Republicans who get mad at you, and sometimes it’s Democrats.”
Make a difference, get creamed
That these minor parties might affect the fortunes of the major ones is understood; to what extent, however, is not.
“Most of these unaffiliated voters are what we call ‘shadow partisans,’ so they may register as unaffiliated but have preferences for one party or the other,” said Cooper.
The inclusion of minor parties on the ballot could lead some of those unaffiliated voters towards affiliation, and could lead to defections from the major parties as well, making it far more difficult to predict what might happen to Democrats and Republicans if the Green Party and the Constitution Party, or any other party, acquires ballot access.
“It obviously muddies things, and makes them more complicated,” he said. “We’re talking about a percentage point or two, maybe three, but the fact you’ve got parties represented on both sides, I kind of think it would come out in the wash.”
Considering the hundred-fifty-something year head start the major parties have on minor parties in terms of brand recognition and political loyalties often passed down generationally, the impact of these parties on North Carolina elections may be small, but may not be inconsequential.
“It’s important to have more parties, but to be blunt about it, third parties rarely win, and third parties rarely make a big difference in the long run,” Cooper said. “We can all point to a few exceptions, but even [with] the exceptions, the third parties tend to get creamed.”
One such exception who both made a difference and got creamed was Dee Williams, a candidate for Asheville City Council in the last election. Although the race was non-partisan, Williams is a member of and closely affiliated with the WNC chapter of the Green Party, and was also endorsed by similarly left-leaning minor parties like the Asheville branches of the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization.
Williams finished fourth in a field of 12 during the October, 2017, primary, good enough to advance to the general election, where she finished sixth out of six candidates competing for three seats. According to the WNC Greens, Williams is the first Green candidate in North Carolina to make it through a city council primary election.
“Our volunteers ran an amazing campaign and highlighted a lot of issues with certain populations of our local community that probably would not have been addressed, specifically issues of affordable housing and economic inequality,” said Ben Williamson, who with Camille McCarthy serves as co-chair of the WNC Greens. “A lot of people were surprised at the support Dee garnered and I think it shows a readiness of people to really listen to these issues, and I think a general frustration and disenchantment with the established two-party system.”
That frustration and disenchantment puts these smaller parties in position to swing several North Carolina seats.
In the 2016 election, the state’s 13 congressional districts all saw contested races, but the average margin of victory in those races was just over 25 percent, with the closest race still resulting in a 12-point margin. Those districts, not surprisingly, have been ruled unconstitutional gerrymanders and will likely change before 2020, becoming tighter and, in theory, more competitive.
During that same election, 33 of the state’s 50 Senate Districts saw contested races; the average margin of victory in those contested races was 30 percent. The closest race was in the Cary-area 17th District, where Republican Tamara Barringer defeated Democrat Susan P. Evans by just 42 votes, or less than 1 percent.
Barringer’s was the only Senate race decided by less than 5 points; Libertarian Susan J. Hogarth, however, pulled 4.24 percent, or almost 5,200 votes — most of which would probably have gone to Barringer.
Also in 2016, 57 of the state’s 120 House Districts were uncontested. Of the 63 that saw contested races, the average margin of victory was almost 26 points. Eight of those races, however, were decided by less than four points.
Thus the inclusion of minor parties, as Cooper alluded to, probably won’t result in state legislators bearing minor party affiliations any time soon, but these parties could find greater relevance playing spoiler – if anyone from the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement shows up to receive the stacks upon stacks of signatures they’ve been gathering around the state since the passage of SB 656.
Since last summer, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been locked in political combat with the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the state’s elections board, which was recently consolidated with the N.C. State Ethics Board to create a unified State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.
Cooper opined the move was unconstitutional, and hasn’t yet appointed anyone to the new board, but courts disagreed with him, so the case has now gone to the N.C. Supreme Court.
SB 656 gives a June 1 deadline for the filing of minor-party petitions if those parties want to participate in the upcoming 2018 elections.
McCarthy said that the Green Party is attempting to qualify under the 70 percent clause and is also gathering signatures as a backup, but as of now, there’s no one at the new NCSBEEE to receive the paperwork for either method.
Regardless, minor party advocates remain undeterred in their belief that the inclusion of such parties in an age of rarefied political division is both necessary and helpful to the state and country as a whole.
“I think parties like Greens and other third parties, it’s time for us to have a seat at the table,” Williamson said. “People are willing to listen to the solutions and ideas that third parties are bringing. Obviously, ballot access is a huge part of that.”
Although Eddie Cabe inhabits a wholly different part of the political spectrum than Williamson, they seem to agree on that.
“I believe the more good people we have running for office,” said Cabe, “the better choices we’ll have.”