Court upholds state’s rules for political parties to get on the ballot

There are three ways for political parties to be recognized and get a slot on state ballots. One, delivering signatures 180 days before a primary, was unsuccessfully challenged by the Arizona Green Party. (Photo by James Anderson/Cronkite News)

Volunteers, in 2008, collect signatures for the Green Party. Courts rejected the party’s claim that Arizona’s requirements for petitions to recognize third parties was unconstitutionally burdensome. (Photo by Kaihsu Tai/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday upheld the state’s process for recognizing political parties, rejecting claims by the Arizona Green Party that the petition deadline for new parties posed an unconstitutional burden.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that while the Green Party did not present evidence to support its case, the state showed that the deadline is necessary “to achieve the important goal of orderly elections.”

The suit was filed in 2014, after the the Green Party lost its status as a recognized party in the state, and will not affect this fall’s elections, when several Greens will appear on the ballot in Arizona.

Calls to the party and to its attorneys were not immediately returned Friday, but an official in the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office welcomed the decision.

“We’re really happy that the court upheld it, and it keeps the system in place,” said State Election Director Eric Spencer.

“We recognize that third parties are a critical element to democracy because they bring fresh ideas and vitality and hold the major parties accountable,” Spencer said. “On the other hand, election officials need to have the ability to carry out the election.”

Parties get state recognition in Arizona in one of three ways. Parties with at least 5 percent of the votes in the last general election are automatically recognized as are those with registered voters that exceed two-thirds of 1 percent of the total number of registered voters in the state.

The third way for parties to get recognized and a slot on the ballot is by petition, by presenting a designated number of signatures at least 180 days before the primary.

The Green Party lost its status in November 2013 after failing to meet the voter threshold in the 2010 elections. Rather than petition the state, the party sued, arguing that the 180-day deadline was an excessive burden under the First and 14th amendments.

Not only was the signature requirement costly, the party claimed, it forced party workers to collect signatures during a time when “the mind of the general public and attention of the media is not focused on the general elections.”

A district court judge ruled in favor of the state, saying the party had not provided evidence to back up its claims.

The circuit court upheld the lower court’s decision, echoing the fact that the Greens had provided scant evidence on which it could make a ruling.

“Without any evidence regarding the practical consequences of the (deadline), we find ourselves in the position of Lady Justice: blindfolded and
stuck holding empty scales,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the opinion for the circuit court.

Although the Green Party did not return calls for comment, the chairman of the Arizona Libertarian Party said running as a third party is tough.

“Republicans and the Democrats are constantly working on ways to … suppress other parties so that people are faced with a choice of lesser of two evils,” Michael Kielsky said. “The Democrats think the Greens undermine them; the Republicans think the Libertarians undermine them.”

The Libertarians actually have a tougher path to the ballot this year than the Greens, because the Libertarians are a state-recognized party while the Greens are considered a “new” party through the 2018 election cycle. That status comes with lower petition requirements.

Presidential nominee Gary Johnson is the only Libertarian that made the ballot this fall, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Because of its status as a new party, with easier signature thresholds, the Green Party has a number of candidates on the ballot for state and federal office. They include presidential nominee Jill Stein, three congressional candidates and six candidates vying for statehouse seats.