Colorado's fringe political parties have been griping for years that the state makes it unfairly difficult for them to get their candidates on the ballot.
Now, many of them fear, it's about to get even tougher. A nascent electoral-reform proposal backed by former secretary of state Natalie Meyer could drastically increase the number of signatures required for independents and third-party candidates to run in state and federal elections.
"It's an execution warrant," says Earl Dodge, the Prohibition Party's gubernatorial candidate in last November's election. "It would kill every single third party in the state."
Colorado law mandates that Libertarians, Greens and other "political organizations" gather 1,000 signatures on behalf of anyone they want to run for statewide offices such as governor. Third-party congressional candidates need 500 signatures, presidential hopefuls 5,000. Those running for the state legislature need 1,000 signatures or enough to equal 20 percent of the votes cast in their district in the most recent general election, whichever is less.
Meyer and other election officials have discussed asking Colorado lawmakers to scrap that hodgepodge of requirements and institute a flat, across-the-board percentage. One idea being batted about is for the state to make third parties collect signatures equal to 2 percent of the votes cast in the previous election before putting their candidates on the ballot for any office.
Meyer, a Republican Party activist before her twelve-year reign as secretary of state, says the change is necessary in the wake of an October ruling by Denver U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham. Nottingham reviewed the legality of the state's current system after Libertarian Judd Ptak sued to have his name placed on the ballot as a candidate in last November's race for Colorado's Senate District 13.
Ptak, who'd gathered more than 750 valid signatures, claimed he shouldn't need 1,000 for the state Senate when it took only 500 signatures for a third-party candidate to get on the ballot to run for Congress. In a preliminary injunction in October, Nottingham agreed that Colorado's requirements might be unconstitutional. (Ptak got his name on the ballot but lost the election to Republican Sally Hopper of Golden.)
Nottingham still hasn't made a final ruling in the case, but Meyer says lawmakers need to bring the system into conformance with the U.S. Constitution during the current session. A flat percentage rate would be an easy way to do that, she says. As Meyer envisions it, the rule change would be part of a routine "housecleaning" electoral-reform measure carried in the legislature by Representative Debbie Allen of Aurora.
"They've got to address this problem," Meyer says.
But third-party activists say a straight-percentage rule would likely jack up their signature requirements impossibly high. More than 1 million Coloradans voted for governor in November; if the state adopted a 2 percent rule, independent candidates would need more than 20,000 signatures to run candidates in future gubernatorial races. Even a much lower .5 percent requirement would mean 5,000 signatures--five times what's needed now.
"This an attempt to destroy these parties and prevent choice for the voters of Colorado," says Philip Hufford, who campaigned for governor in November under the Green Party banner. "It's really quite arrogant and anti-democratic behavior."
It's easy to dismiss third-party candidates as inconsequential, since they've had virtually no electoral success in Colorado. But that doesn't mean the right independent candidate couldn't draw a solid base of support in the state. Texas billionaire Ross Perot made a strong showing here during his 1992 bid for the presidency. And statistics show there are almost as many unaffiliated Colorado voters as there are registered Democrats or Republicans.
Alarm about the 2 percent solution is so great that the fringe parties have banded together to fight the proposal as the Colorado Coalition for Fair and Open Elections. The alliance includes the Libertarian Party, the Communist Party, the Green Party, the Prohibition Party, the Colorado Taxpayer Party and other strange bedfellows.
Hufford says the real motivation behind the proposal is to shut third parties out of elections altogether and give the two mainstream parties a "hammerlock on the political process."
"The goal is not to be fair," says Hufford. "The goal is to commit political murder."
All this fretting may be premature. Vikki Buckley, Meyer's successor as secretary of state, says she hasn't even looked at the Ptak litigation yet and hasn't decided whether she'll support a 2 percent rule or some other idea. "It's too early for me to say," Buckley says.
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And Debbie Allen, the representative who would likely carry the legislative reform bill, is voicing doubts about the proposal as well. Making third-party and independent candidates collect 20,000 signatures to run for governor is "almost preposterous," she says.
Third-party activists, though, aren't taking any chances and have begun to step up their fight against the idea. No less than democracy is at stake, they say.
"Unless you're Ross Perot or [Colorado millionaire] Bruce Benson, you're out of the picture" if the 2 percent rule goes through, Hufford says. "There's no way that ordinary citizens could mount a campaign.