By Erik Schelzig
NASHVILLE — Republicans are balking at a Democratic senator’s proposal to make it easier for minor parties to be listed on the Tennessee ballot.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis wants to set a threshold of 10,000 signatures from eligible voters for a third party to be recognized in the state, down from a GOP proposal of about 40,000 signatures from registered voters.
“My goal is to allow people who believe they’re in the Tea Party or the Green Party or the Liberation Party to get on the ballot,” Kyle said. “Any organization that can get 10,000 signatures is as legitimate a political entity as any other.
“People should be able to stand up there and say I believe in these principles,” he said. “I just think democracy works better when the rules are fair.”
Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga said he’s concerned about fracturing Tennessee’s political landscape.
“I don’t want to see us become like Italy and have a dozen different parties and all these splinter groups, and have to make coalitions with them,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “So I think the standard ought to be high.”
Kyle said his measure is being opposed by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office. State Election Coordinator Mark Goins said he has technical concerns about the measure, because his office can only verify the signatures of registered voters, but has no way to check eligible voters.
“I don’t know of anywhere in the election code where just individuals who are residents can sign a petition,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, is a main sponsor of the ballot access measure that became necessary because of a federal judges’ ruling last year that the state’s current standards are too burdensome on smaller parties.
Norris said he doesn’t have a problem with making it even easier for smaller parties to be listed on the ballot, but that it may come down to a “cost factor” of making a sweeping change.
Third parties seeking to run statewide candidates must currently submit a petition signed by the equivalent of 2.5 percent of the voters in the previous governor’s election, or about 40,000 signatures. Otherwise candidates are listed simply as independents.
U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. found in September that the 2.5 percent threshold meets constitutional standards, but not when combined with another requirements for the signatures to come from people who are members of the party seeking recognition on the ballot, which he called an “invasion of the voter’s privacy.”
Haynes noted that Tennessee and Oklahoma are the only states where third parties have failed to qualify for the ballot over the last decade.
The ruling went into effect after November’s elections, giving lawmakers the time needed to fix the qualification laws by 2012.
Until 1960, any party could have their candidates listed on the ballot if they held nominating conventions. Since lawmakers implemented a qualification threshold, only George Wallace’s American Party has qualified for the ballot in 1968 and 1972.
A special law for the 2000 election allowed the presidential candidates of the Libertarian, Reform and Green parties to be on the ballot, but they were still listed under “independent.”
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who courted the tea party vote during his failed bid for the governor last year, said he has long supported efforts to clear the way for smaller parties.
“I do believe that we do need easier ballot access,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey said adding more parties to the ballot he move could just as easily affect Democrats’ electoral prospects if the Green Party cleared the threshold. “That works both ways,” he said.
Kyle said his proposal isn’t aimed at giving tea party activists a better chance at chipping away at Republicans.
“I don’t know if there’s 10,000 tea party people in Tennessee,” he said. “But if there are, and somebody wants to be able to run under that banner, they ought to be allowed to.”