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Signature Requirements Keep Gingrich and Perry Off Virginia Ballot, But at What Cost?
Posted by Enrique on 12.28.2011

Did you receive many nice Christmas gifts, dear readers? Odds are you received some very thoughtful gifts that you appreciated a great deal, as well as some other items that were more in the "thought that counts" vein.

In that spirit, Virginia gave America a gift by denying GOP presidential candidates/cretins Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich a spot on that state's ballot due to insufficient signatures. While I'm sure we're all grateful for the gesture, it begs the question of whether restrictive requirements for ballot access are good for democracy. Well, maybe it doesn't beg that question exactly, but let's have fun with it anyway.

The story so far…

Artist's rendering of Rick Perry's response to Virginia election officials

If there's one thing this preposterously extensive Republican primary debate extravaganza has taught us, it's that the nobility of public service is vastly overrated. If there's another thing, it's that Barack Obama may be the least destructive candidate that will be running for the presidency next year. Alas.

Still, it's fun when one of these clowns embarrasses himself. Since Herman Cain left the race, it seems like there haven't been nearly as many entertaining gaffes. Although this story that Perry and Gingrich aren't going to make the ballot in Virginia's primary doesn't quite have the raw entertainment value of Cain's mistress telling the press that he's bedroom poison, it's still good fun.

Virginia's primary is scheduled for March 6, which is the so-called "super" Tuesday when nine other states will be holding their primaries/caucuses. Last week, the word came down that a couple of high profile candidates would not be permitted to compete in the Old Dominion:

The state Republican Party determined Friday and early Saturday that neither [Perry nor Gingrich] submitted at least 10,000 valid signatures. The GOP earlier announced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul will be on the ballot. […]

Perry submitted 11,911 signatures to Virginia election officials Thursday, which means 2,000 or more signatures were deemed invalid. Gingrich had about 800 fewer signatures than Perry.

The rest of the field — former Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — failed to file petitions by Thursday's deadline and won't be on the ballot. The Democratic Party of Virginia certified President Obama's petitions, which included more than 15,000 signatures, Friday.
Gingrich, who claims to be an historian to anyone who doesn't immediate run away when he approaches, apparently compared his failure to qualify for Virginia's primary to the attack on Pearl Harbor that happened 70 years ago this month. And the conventional wisdom on this guy is that he's an intellectual.

For his part, Perry filed a lawsuit against the Virginia elections board. So much for states' rights.

While it's fun to have a laugh at Perry and Gingrich's expense – and we certainly should – it appears that Virginia's signature requirements are extreme. Not only does the state demand 10,000 valid signatures total, there must be at least 400 from each of Virginia's eleven congressional districts. Furthermore, state law prohibits write-in candidacies for primary elections.

One could certainly argue that keeping Perry and Gingrich out of positions of national influence is an end that justifies the means. However, it's pretty easy to see how such an onerous requirement discourages participation in politics by anyone other than well-connected insiders.

There was a story in the Washington Post this week about how members of Congress are very wealthy compared to the population at large, and that the average income of congresspersons has more than doubled in the last 25 years. I'm certainly not one to criticize how rich people spend their money, but a lot of people do. If Romney ends up being the GOP nominee, one line of attack by Dems and the MSM is going to be that his wealth and business background mean he's out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.

If ordinary Americans want candidates who aren't all rich, rent-seeking cronies, they're going to have to call for reform of ballot access requirements, which generally favor entrenched incumbents, wealthy dilettantes, and those anointed by powerful special interest groups. Another example is occurring in my home state of Wisconsin right now, with the campaign to recall Governor Scott Walker. Personally, I have no particular objection to the recall of elected officials, and anything that makes it easier to throw politicians out of office is not something to which I would strenuously object.

But it isn't easy. Wisconsin law stipulates that for the governor to be recalled, valid signatures must be obtained from 25% of total votes for governor from the previous election. In Walker's case, that works out to about 540,000 signatures that must be collected in a two-month period. The latest word is that recall organizers say they have over 500,000 signatures, and will try to obtain more than 700,000 just to be safe. Regardless of the eventual outcome – and there's a good chance Walker would win a recall election – the 25% requirement makes it nearly impossible in most cases to mount a successful recall.

If Walker does face a recall election, it will only be because of the efforts of a very well-funded, well-connected organization backed by powerful special interests – in this case, public employee unions. If Walker was merely corrupt, a recall organized by ordinary Wisconsin voters would probably not be feasible. As with Virginia, the ridiculously high signature requirements mean that political insiders and special interest groups have a disproportionate impact on the electoral process.

I assume most folks think we need some restrictions on who is able to get on a ballot. We wouldn't want just anyone to run for office, would we? But I'm not so sure. What's the worst that could happen if anyone could easily run for office or propose referenda? We'd waste paper on longer ballots? Some marginal candidates might actually win a primary?

Perish the thought

A lot of people, including myself, made fun of Christine O'Donnell's 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, but was the nation somehow irreparably damaged by her candidacy and subsequent landslide defeat? Even if she had won, O'Donnell would have been one of 50 U.S. Senators, so it's not as if she would have been capable of turning America into a Christian theocracy.

If it were easier for more Americans to run for office, I would venture that the number of gadfly candidates like O'Donnell would be fairly low. As it stands, complicated ballot access requirements favor not only well-connected insiders, but also particularly driven personalities with marginal views like O'Donnell. If it really is important for our elected officials to understand the concerns of ordinary Americans, we need to reform ballot access requirements that act as disincentives for normal, thoughtful people to seek public office.

And even if there were more extremist candidates, so what? In a world where the federal government is over $15 trillion in debt, maybe unconventional policy ideas are exactly what we need.

Artist's rendering of candidate with unconventional policy ideas


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