Bill works toward leveling minor parties’ playing fields

Gary B. Gray • May 1, 2012 at 8:23 AM

If signed, a bill headed to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk would mark a step toward leveling the playing field for minor parties in primary elections.

On April 16, SB 3700/HB 3471 was adopted by both houses. The legislation gives recognized minor parties the option to nominate all candidates by primary or by rules of the party. The move comes a few months after a federal judge’s ruling that some Tennessee laws unfairly and unconstitutionally govern minor political parties and candidates.

Under the new law, minor parties can opt out of primaries and nominate their candidates in any manner provided by their own rules. If the party opts out of having a primary, it must file its qualifying petition not later than 90 days before the general election for state and statewide offices or by June 1 to participate in the August general election for all other offices.

If a minor party does not opt out of holding a primary, the current rules continue to apply.

Under current law, minor parties can only nominate their candidates by primary elections. And to qualify to have a primary election, they must file their qualifying petitions by April 5 — the same date candidates must file.

In February, U.S. District Judge William Haynes Jr. ruled in a lawsuit jointly filed against the state by the Green Party and Constitution Party, that the state has imposed unconstitutional hurdles to third parties running for election in Tennessee.

The legislative move is just a slice of Haynes’ call for changes.

He invalidated Tennessee’s new ballot access law for minor parties, and his decision strikes down the early April petition deadline and the 40,029 signature petition requirement. He also said it is unconstitutional to force minor parties to nominate by primary, at least in the context of an open primary state that doesn’t have party registration. Finally, his decision nixes the 2011 law that reserves the best positions on the ballot for the two major parties.

Alan Woodruff, the Gray attorney who represented the Green and Constitution parties in that suit, says the new statute cures the “constitutional defect” in the Tennessee law. The Democratic candidate for the congressional seat now held by Phil Roe says that minor parties will likely opt out of primaries.

While only a portion of this has been reworked into state law, it is a gain for smaller parties.

“I have no idea if the lawsuit had an impact on this, but it’s a start,” he said. “The April filing deadline for candidates of minor parties remains unchanged. This filing deadline was held to be unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The District Court’s ruling has been appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal.”

Washington County Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said Monday that, so far, she has no knowledge of any third party candidates seeking a spot on the Aug. 2 state primary and county general election ballot.

Woodruff said Kingsport’s Kermit Steck has filed his candidate petitions with the Tennessee Coordinator of Elections to be the Constitution Party candidate for U.S. Senate, but the state has so far refused to recognize him as either a candidate of the Constitution Party or an independent candidate.

“There is a lawsuit filed by minor political parties, which is under appeal,” Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said late Monday in response to Steck’s petition, “specifically, whether the minor parties will be recognized is at issue. Should the court of appeals affirm the lower court, all properly qualified candidates will be on the ballot, including minor party candidates.”

The state appealed Haynes’ decision and asked the judge to stay his order to hold a random drawing instead of placing Republican and Democratic party candidates at the top of ballots.

State law currently requires Republicans to be listed at the top of ballots because it is the majority party in the General Assembly, Woodruff said. The law says that a candidate running as a Democrat will be listed second because it is the party in the minority in the state legislature, he said.

The appeal is ongoing; the stay was denied.

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