Ballot Access or Ballot Denial?
by Matthew A. Givens
Posted: July 23, 2007
When discussing Alabama politics, one aspect that rarely receives much attention is the collection of laws that control who can and cannot run for political office. These ballot access laws are allegedly designed to keep elections controllable by keeping fringe candidates and parties with little popular support off of the ballot. The bogey man often raised concerning this point is that ten or twenty people running for Governor would be impossibly complex and cause many problems during the election.
But does Alabama actually have a problem with crowded ballots? To answer that question, we must pay a lengthy visit to the elections division of the Alabama Secretary of State. Looking at the office of Governor, the last time we had more than two candidates was in 2002 when the Libertarian party fielded a candidate. At the time, the Libertarian Party had achieved major party status during the 2000 election cycle. To find another example, however, we have to look all the way back to the 1982 election, in which a total of 7 candidates ran for Governor. Prior to that time, three to seven candidates for Governor was a regular occurrence. In this case, then, what ballot access laws actually accomplished was to restrict the ballots so that only Republicans and Democrats had access to them.
Rather than being ballot access laws, Alabama has implemented ballot denial laws. And the question remains, does Alabama have a problem with crowded ballots? From looking at the Legislature, it looks more like we have a problem with deserted ballots!
In the current Legislature, 60 of the 105 House members and 12 of the 35 Senate members had no opponent in the 2006 general election. I will say that again, as it sounds vaguely important to me. Of the 140 sitting Legislators, 72 had no opponent in the last election! It is amazing that we can be talking about crowded ballots when a full 51% of our Legislators ran unopposed. That means that approximately 2.3 million Alabama voters were disenfranchised, because they had no choice at the ballot box!
During that same election, only two independent candidates were able to meet all of the ballot denial requirements and actually made it to the ballot. Unfortunately, both candidates were in one of the increasingly rare districts that had two candidates on the ballot.
But the picture gets worse as we examine it closely. Almost 24% of the sitting Legislators have been unopposed for two or more terms! The so called “elected official” who has been unopposed for the longest time is Representative James E. Buskey (D), who has served unopposed since 1982… a whopping 26 years with two more years left in his current term. Close behind him are Richard J. Lindsey (D), John Rogers (D), and Alvin Holmes (D) with 6 terms each. And one of the leading proponents of strengthening the ballot denial laws, Representative Ken Guin (D), is himself the beneficiary of them, as he ran unopposed in 2006.
In spite of these facts, each and every year new bills that further restrict ballot access are introduced into the Legislature. Some of them even pass. And laws that try to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to run are virtually ignored in committee.
The next time some wise-guy says that we have the Legislature we deserve because we keep electing the same people, you have my permission to laugh in his face.
The only way to fix this is for the Legislature to immediately fast-track legislation that will make it easier for people to exercise their constitutional right and run for elected office. This is not likely to happen, I admit, because the very unelected legislators who benefit from the ballot denial laws would have to approve the reform legislation. However, we can’t win if we don’t fight, so I urge everyone to contact their unelected legislator and ask that he support relaxing the ballot denial laws so that we are not burdened by deserted ballots.
If you would like to submit a written opinion on this or any other subject, please click here.