Political parties win ballot suit; state law ruled unconstitutional
Gary B. Gray
Feb 6, 2012 at 10:31 PM
A federal judge has ruled in favor of Tennessee’s Green and Constitution parties’ joint lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Nashville that claimed laws on the books violated the state constitution by making it unreasonably hard for third parties to get their names on the ballots.
“This is a great victory for voters in the state, because now we’ve made it easier for new parties to form,” said Alan Woodruff, a Johnson City attorney who announced his plans to represent the parties during a visit to the Johnson City Press last summer. “This ruling removes limitations and gives people an option. I believe in democracy and that everybody that has something to say should be on the ballot.”
Woodruff, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, said that though he is affiliated with a major party, he got involved in the suit to fight for equity for all parties.
On Feb. 3, Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ruled in favor of claims by the plaintiffs and against Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter and defendants Tre Harget, secretary of state, and Mark Goins, coordinator of elections.
Both the Green and Constitution parties are recognized by state law as a “minor” parties, which, by definition means they are required to file a nominating petition with the state’s coordinator of elections. That petition must bear the signatures of a minimum of at least 2.5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election for governor.
Haynes wrote in his Feb. 3 order and/or judgment that he agreed with plaintiffs that that mark gives Goins leeway to raise the number at his discretion and therefore was “unconstitutionally vague, and imposes impermissible burdens on Plaintiff’s First Amendment right to associate as a political party.”
For a “minor” political party to get its name on the Tennessee ballot in 2012, more than 40,000 signatures would have to be collected by April 5. This law has not applied to the Republican and Democrat, or “major,” parties.
Haynes wrote in his opinion that the deadline was too early and unconstitutional, and that a more reasonable number of signatures for the nominating petition would be 10,000. This will need to be settled in the General Assembly.
“Any deadline in excess of 60 days prior to the August primary for the filing of petitions for recognition as a political party is unenforceable,” he wrote.
Haynes also declared that minor parties cannot be required to conduct primaries, which currently is state law. Woodruff has claimed that primaries are much too expensive, especially for smaller parties, and that nominating conventions would help relieve that burden.
The judge also enjoined the state from banning the words “independent” and “non-partisan” in a party’s name as it appears on a ballot, stating it violated the First Amendment rights of free speech.
He also said the state’s requirement that major parties be listed highest on ballots followed by minor parties and independents was unlawful, saying this is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Forth Amendment. He also ordered the state to hold a random drawing regarding the order of party names.
He also ruled against current state law that requires signatures on nominating petitions to be accompanied by party affiliation, stating this also violated First Amendment rights to privacy and political beliefs.
Kleinfelter was not immediately available for comment. However, a representative from the attorney general’s office said the judge’s opinion is being reviewed, but no decision has been made at this point as to what steps the state may take.
“They may appeal,” Woodruff said. “We would welcome a chance to argue before the Tennessee Supreme Court.”