Two political parties have filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Nashville claiming Tennessee law makes it too hard for them to get candidates on the ballot.
On July 19, the Green Party of Tennessee and the Constitution Party of Tennessee jointly filed a lawsuit that takes issue with several revisions made to state law during this year’s legislative session regarding ballots and petition deadlines that they say are unconstitutional.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins have been named as defendants, and a pre-trial hearing has been set for early September.
Both the Green Party and Constitution Party are recognized by state law as a “minor party,” which means they are required to file a petition with the state’s coordinator of elections. The petition must bear the signatures of a minimum of at least two and one-half percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election for governor.
Election laws in Tennessee have for about 50 years required minor parties to provide petitions. Major parties don’t have to petition to get on the ballot.
“This law also states (Goins) can request more and that’s unconstitutional,” Alan Woodruff, a Johnson City attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Thursday during a visit to the Johnson City Press. “The language says that percentage is a minimum. It’s unconstitutional vagueness. He seems to have the ability to create any requirement he wants. The delegation of that power violates the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause.”
The suit also says the deadline to turn in signatures is still sooner than necessary.
In 2010, minor parties were required to file petitions in March, five months before the August primaries. But that was found to be unconstitutional by a judge in the same federal court where the current lawsuit is now going forward. Following the ruling, the legislature voted to move that deadline to April, a move that the plaintiffs say was a political method of temporarily appeasing the minor parties.
“The April date is much too far in advance of the primary,” Woodruff said. “The April date has been challenged in various states 15 times and defeated 15 times. Who are you going to recruit in the winter? And, people aren’t even familiar with the major party candidates at that point.”
The plaintiffs also object to a provision in state code that bars them from choosing nominations through conventions, a process that minor parties believe would be cheaper and simpler than open primaries.
“Primaries are dictated by federal law, and any statewide party must nominate a candidate through this process,” Woodruff said. “But not only are these ridiculously expensive, they only apply to certain offices. And by and large, minor parties are only going to have one candidate.”
Finally, only if a minor party is officially qualified can their candidate be listed alongside that party on the ballot.
No minor party has qualified for ballot access in Tennessee since 1968.
Recall 1996 and 2000 presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He was a member of the Green Party. However, because the party did not qualify, the word “independent” was listed alongside his name on the ballot.
Another matter that deeply concerns the Green Party and Constitutional Party is the fact that by law, the major party candidates are placed on the top portion of ballots. Then, in descending order, they are followed by minor party candidates and independents. And that will continue until laws are changed.
“We’ve pretty much been a two-party country for more than 150 years,” he said.
The Green Party of the United States has been active as a nationally recognized political party since 2001.
The Constitution Party was founded by Howard Phillips in 1991 as the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party. The party’s official name was changed to the Constitution Party in 1999.
The Libertarian Party of Tennessee also is considering a similar suit, according to an Associated Press report. This is the third largest and fastest growing political party in the United States. The political platform favors small government, fewer regulations and greater civil liberties.