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Voting in the primary eliminates options

The Texas Secretary of State’s office is planning a primary-election wingding next week in front of the Alamo to “educate” San Antonians about electronic-voting machines for persons with disabilities. Yet, like many educational efforts in Texas, the presentation will omit important information.

What the Secretary of State won’t tell you is that voting in the March 7 primary disqualifies you from signing the petition of an independent or third-party candidate who is trying to get listed on the general-election ballot.

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You can’t sign more than one candidates’ petition per race. If you do, only the one you signed
first will count.

This quirk in Texas election law, known as “primary screen-out,” adds barriers to independent candidates’ cumbersome task of collecting more than 45,000 valid signatures in 65 days, and, in cases of a run-off, 30 days. The number of required signatures is set by calculating 1 percent of the vote in the 2002 gubernatorial election. Third parties have 75 days to collect signatures.

“It makes it next to impossible to get ballot access,” says Bev Kennedy, state chairperson of the Texas Reform Party.

“If you don’t have candidates on the ballot, you get zero opportunity to promote your message.”

Scott Haywood, communications director for Secretary of State Roger Williams, a Republican, says information about the primary screen-out won’t be part of the event. The Secretary of State’s office isn’t independently informing people of the law, Haywood says, because “It’s been pretty widely reported in the media.” Yet, a database search of major Texas newspapers showed that only two stories have been devoted to primary-screen-out rules: an 855-word article in last week’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and a 90-word blurb that appeared in November in the Dallas Morning News.

Moreover, Haywood says, primary-screen-out rules are listed on the petitions. However, since signature canvassing can’t begin until after the primary, prospective signators could have already voted, thus inadvertently disqualifying themselves.

Vote at your own risk

You can’t sign third-party or independent candidates’ petitions to be listed on the ballot if:

You are not a registered voter

You have voted in the Democratic or Republican primary that election year

You have participated in a major-party precinct convention that election year

In addition, you can sign only one candidate’s petition per race. If you sign more than one, only the first petition will count.

Independent candidates must collect and deliver to the Secretary of State’s office 45,540 valid signatures between March 8 and May 11. If there is a run-off election for the seat the candidate is seeking, the amount of time to collect signatures is reduced. Candidates must wait until the day after the run-off, April 12, to begin collecting signatures and still must make the May 11 deadline. Third-party candidates must collect their signatures between March 15 and May 28.

Important voting dates

Early voting for the primary:
February 21-March 3

Primary election day:
March 7

Primary run-off election:
April 11

Primary party precinct convention:
March 7

Primary party precinct convention:
March 14

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Haywood directed the Current to the Secretary of State website (sos.state.tx.us.) for information about the primary-screen-out rule. First, you must click on “elections and voter information,” then “candidates,” then “candidates guide to the primary and general election,” then “filing independent” or “filing for Libertarian or other party nomination.” Or you can link to the Texas Election Code and scroll down to Chapter 142.

Texas is the only state to have such stringent ballot-access requirements, which further entrench the two-party system.

“These ridiculous requirements tell you about Texas politicians and what they’ll do to quash third-party candidates,” says Laura Stromberg, press secretary for Kinky Friedman, who is running as an independent candidate for governor. “What are they afraid of?”

Amber Moon, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, says there are plenty of registered voters who don’t vote in the primaries and can sign a candidate’s petition. In 2004, there were 11 million registered voters in Texas; of those, 1.5 million voted in the primary, leaving 9.5 million available for the picking. “Any candidate who has the credibility to win statewide elections should have no problems getting on the ballot,” Moon says.

“They like the voter numbers low,” counters Stromberg. “They control those numbers; they want their base to vote and no one else.”

Neither the state Republican Party nor independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Strayhorn returned calls from the Current seeking comment.

There are varying accounts of how primary screen-out evolved, but Pat Dixon, chairman of the Texas Libertarians, attributes it to a turf battle between Republicans and Democrats, when the latter party was in power and maneuvering to stay that way. (With Republicans now controlling all major state offices, the ploy didn’t work.) Bev Kennedy of the Reform Party says the law is a result of the Red Scare, when the Communist Party had a higher political profile. “Again, if a majority of voters have the desire to turn communist,” she says, “don’t they have that right?”

In the 2005 legislative session, Texas Libertarians, the only third party to have ballot access, pushed to strike the primary screen-out provision from the election code. Although House Bill 1721 had four authors — Republicans Todd Baxter, Terry Keel, and Suzanna Hupp, and Democrat Mark Strama — it never left the elections committee.

Alfred Molison, co-chair of the Texas Green Party, says that if minor parties or independent candidates were to get a foothold, the major parties could also resort to suing to keep candidates off the ballot. In 2004, Florida Democrats challenged Reform Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who, as a Green candidate was largely blamed for diverting votes from Democrats in the 2000 presidential election. A judge struck down the Dems’ contentions that the Reform Party didn’t belong on the ballot because it wasn’t a viable national party.

“It’s the shutting down of dissenting voices by those who are beholden to the powers that be,” Molison says. “I’m concerned that the system will have to become a lot more rotten than it is for people to see it.”

By Lisa Sorg


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