Johnson City Press Friday, August 1, 2014

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Minor parties win court fight over ballot access in Tennessee

March 18th, 2014 2:33 pm by Brad Hicks

Minor parties win court fight over ballot access in Tennessee

The Green Party and Constitution Party of Tennessee have scored another legal victory, as a federal judged has ruled the two political parties should be afforded the same access on election ballots as major political parties.

In an opinion filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville, Chief U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ruled that several provisions of state statute preventing candidates for the Green and Constitution parties from appearing on ballots are unconsitutional.

“It’s very significant for the Green and Constitution parties because they’re back on the ballot,” said Alan Woodruff, the Johnson City attorney who has represented the parties in their legal actions.

In October, the parties filed an action against Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins.

The parties asserted in their complaint that the combined efforts of Tennessee Codes 2-1-104(a)(31) and 2-13-107(f) imposed an unconstitutional burden on their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which give citizens the right to create and develop new political parties and to secure ballot access for their candidates as “recognized minor parties.”

TCA 2-1-104(a)(31) defines a “statewide political party,” and it states that a for a party to be recognized as such, at least one of its candidates in a state election must have received a number of votes equal to at least 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election of the governor. This code, along with TCA 2-13-107(f), required the parties to satisfy the voter percentage requirement of “statewide political parties” after only one election.

This was not the parties’ first action against the state. The parties previously challenged TCA 2-1-104(a)(24), which required them to file a nominating petition with that state’s coordinator of elections bearing 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.

After Haynes ruled this statute as unconstitutional in 2012, state laws were changed to require new parties to satisfy statewide party requirements in the first election after qualifying for statewide elections, Woodruff said.

“That’s the bulk of this decision is that’s unconstitutional,” Woodruff said. “You must give new parties time to develop, and that statute prevents them from developing.”

According to their complaint, candidates for the Green and Constitution parties appeared on the 2012 ballot with their parties’ respective names. However, candidates for these parties received less than 5 percent of the total vote in that election. Because of this, the parties did not qualify as a “statewide political party” and lost continued ballot access in future elections and status as a “recognized minor party.”

The parties said they had only one election to secure continued ballot access as a “statewide political party,” but state code affords parties already defined as such four calendar years to meet the minimum vote requirement for automatic ballot access.

For the Green and Constitution parties to regain “recognized minor party” status, they would have been required to meet the already-ruled-upon 2.5 percent petition requirement.

In his ruling, Haynes declared TCA 2-1-104(a)(31) and 2-13-107(f) unconstitutional under Supreme Court precedents and the parties’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendment to create and develop their respective parties. Haynes also concluded that these statutes denied the parties their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by denying them equal access to the ballot afforded to “statewide political parties.”

The parties also asserted their rights were violated by TCA 2-1-114, a law requiring a minor or new political party to file an affidavit stating it does not advocate the overthrow of local, state or national government by force or violence and that the is not affiliated with any such organization before its nominees are placed on the ballot.

Haynes also ruled that this statute was unconstitutional, as it violated the parties’ First Amendment rights of free speech.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that unconstitutional as a violation of free speech, and the court said ‘Yes, the statute is unconstitutional,’ ” Woodruff said.

Per Haynes’ ruling, the Green and Constitution parties will have ballot access for their candidates with their respective party names for elections at least three years from the November 2012 election. Woodruff said the parties can have candidates on the 2014 ballot after nominating these candidates.

Woodruff said the decision in the parties’ prior case has been appealed, and the decision issued by Haynes on Friday may also be appealed by the state.

“They very may,” Woodruff said. “They appeal every ruling against them.”

Officials with the state attorney general’s office could not be reached Monday for comment.

Woodruff said he has already spoken to the parties’ chairmen, and that these officials are “ecstatic” about Haynes’ decision.

“It’s important that we have more voices, or more candidates, to represent different positions so that the voters have a real choice,” Woodruff said. 

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