Groups strive to put third-party candidates on ballots

Tina Kelly wheels a stack of petitions to the State Election Board at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Garett Fisbeck)

Tina Kelly wheels a stack of petitions to the State Election Board at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Garett Fisbeck)

When Tina Kelly registered to vote, she didn’t feel civic pride or a rush of exhilaration for political participation.

Instead, she felt deprived.

“When you sign up to vote, you can register as a Republican [or] Democrat or check the ‘no party’ box,” said Kelly, Libertarian Party of Oklahoma vice-chairwoman. “That is beyond insulting.”

Like thousands of other Oklahomans, Kelly is affiliated with a party; however, the state hasn’t recognized parties other than Democrat or Republican for more than a decade, leaving the Libertarian and Green parties and their supporters in a constant battle for ballot spots.

Under Oklahoma’s restrictive ballot access laws, alternative parties are effectively disenfranchised and their members are left frustrated at voting booths.

Following last year’s passage of House Bill 2181, Libertarians and Greens began signature-gathering efforts for recognizing their parties on the ballot. In late February, both groups handed boxes and stacks of petition sheets to the Oklahoma State Election Board. Between the two, around 43,000 Oklahomans support efforts to see alternative parties on the ballot.

While one likely will be awarded ballot access following a signature verification process, both groups — the Libertarian Party of Oklahoma and the Green Party of Oklahoma — have called for additional reform.

Libertarian requirement

Come November, Oklahomans could view a Libertarian option for president and will likely see the party name attached to candidates for state and local offices. Feb. 22, state and national party members rolled four boxes filled with petition sheets to the state Capitol.

Before turning them over to election officials, politician Dax Ewbank eyed box labels. Bright blue bumper stickers read: “More Freedom, Less Government.” The Libertarian Party is the third-largest political party in the United States.

“This stack of signatures is opening a new era of politics in the state of Oklahoma,” said Ewbank, who ran as a Republican candidate for Oklahoma governor in 2014. “I believe this really gives the people of Oklahoma a clear voice and a choice — a rational choice for liberty.”

Ewbank said he intends to run for a U.S. Senate seat as a Libertarian candidate. U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is up for re-election this year.

Libertarians received support from more than 42,000 Oklahomans in 76 counties. The petition efforts cost the national party around $104,000.

The group surpassed the 24,745 signatures required to form a “new” political party and access the 2016 ballot. Legislation authored by House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, significantly reduced the previous requirement of signatures needed for ballot access. The new law requires parties to collect signatures of registered voters equal to 3 percent of the last gubernatorial or presidential election.

Despite past efforts by alternative parties and some lawmakers to alter the state’s ballot access laws, the statue remained unchanged for more than 40 years.

Since 1974, parties seeking ballot access needed to collect signatures of registered voters equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for governor or president.

Before 1974, state law called for collecting 5,000 signatures.

Green protest

The Green Party of Oklahoma advocates for reverting to the original party recognition law of 5,000 signatures. As a small, grassroots political organization, it is improbable for the group to collect 24,745 signatures, which is equal to 3 percent of the total number of votes cast during the 2014 gubernatorial elections, said Rachel Jackson, an organization representative.

Party members delivered petition sheets with between 500 and 600 signatures to election officials Feb. 29. The group purposely collected a low amount to highlight the need for further reform.

Like 2012, Green Party members cannot vote for their party’s presidential candidate on the Oklahoma ballot. Recently, the party endorsed candidate Bernie Sanders for the Oklahoma Democratic primary.

The state’s Democratic Party opened its primary to Independent voters this year. The party used the endorsement as an opportunity to highlight the state’s stringent ballot access laws.

“It is a social justice issue,” Jackson said. “It is at the heart of a representative democracy to have ballot access. The problem is that ballot access is not sexy. It is not like other social justice issues that get more play in Oklahoma.

“We are gaining ground by having conversations around the petition drive about why we can’t collect the more than 24,000 signatures. It gives us an opportunity to explain why our ballot access laws are a problem for our democracy in our state.”

Additional reform

Since 2004, individuals representing Green and Libertarian parties have worked together under a coalition called Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform (OBAR) to rally for more action on ballot access laws.

According to current law, political parties that gain access to the ballot must receive at least 10 percent of the popular vote in the presidential race to remain on the ballot past 2016. If a party fails, it must begin another signature drive to access the ballot again.

Achieving 10 percent of the popular vote is a difficult task for parties in a state traditionally represented by Democrats and Republicans alone.

The last time Oklahoma voters had an alternative party option for president was when Harry Browne ran as the Libertarian candidate in 2000. That same year, Oklahoma Greens rallied to collect signatures for candidate Ralph Nader to appear on the ballot. Party members fell short.

Both Greens and Libertarians are encouraged by legislation filed this session by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City. Senate Bill 896 amends the party retention law from 10 percent to 2.5 percent.

The bill passed committee and awaits the Senate floor for a vote.

Additionally, both parties support Senate Bill 1108, which removes straight-ticket voting.

Alternative parties add another realm to state politics, which Libertarian leadership said would be helpful for the political process. In 2014, eight state Senate and 50 state House candidates ran unopposed.

Alternative parties give voters more options, widen opportunities for political discussions and increase voter interest in a state with dismal voter turnout, Kelly said.

“The lack of political competition placed by the two parties in power has had devastating effects on the morale of Oklahoma voters,” Kelly said. “When you consider the voting trends and the election statistics … I believe we are looking to what amounts to real legitimacy issues.”

 

Print headline: Better ballot, Green and Libertarian parties push for election reform.

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