In politics, as in business, you have to create a product and try to corner the market. Right now the political marketplace is very tightly controlled by — and for — the two major parties. But as the number of political independents grows, the nuts and bolts of the anti-independent bias are moving toward the spotlight. History may show that, whatever Microsoft’s anti-trust violations were, they pale in comparison to the monopoly run by the two major parties.
Right now, Democrats and Republicans are resistant to ballot access reform because that would mean increasing competition in the electoral marketplace — something the two parties are looking to prevent. I know because I’ve been there.
In 1988 I became the first woman and African-American to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. I collected over a million signatures to accomplish this, while my Democratic and Republican opponents needed only about 50,000. And, not only are the laws biased in favor of the major party candidates, but the posture towards independents is that we’re not real — not legitimate.
That posture, or culture is pervasive. It expresses itself in the media, through the Federal Election Commission, among elected officials and at the County Boards and Commissions of Elections which supervise elections. All told, there exists a powerful bias towards incumbents and the two parties to which they belong.
How did I beat the odds? There were three main factors which made my 50 state ballot access drive successful. One, I had some very, very committed people working on my campaign, many of whom were part of a collective of dedicated activists. They were my “secret weapon” on the ballot access front.
Second, I qualified for federal primary matching funds in 1988 — I was the second independent ever to do so — and the first to qualify for a substantial amount of money. In 1988 I qualified for nearly a million dollars in primary matching funds. And a significant portion of that was spent in getting on the ballot.
Finally, since my campaign in 1988 was all about exposing the lack of democracy in American elections, the fight to get on the ballot was intrinsic to the message of the campaign. I wasn’t merely getting on the ballot in all 50 states in order to get a message out. Getting on the ballot was the message.
Having to go to court more than a dozen times and having to comply with the most outrageous and Byzantine laws — gave me the opportunity to show the American people just how biased the system is. It was also an opportunity to show that when independents do come together, these obstacles can be overcome. One by one. State by state.
Ballot access regulations vary dramatically from state to state. In Louisiana you pay a $500 filing fee. In Tennessee, you need only 25 signatures. But in North Carolina, you needed 44,535 signatures. In California you need 128,340 signatures.
And take a “bear” state like Florida for example. You needed 56,318 signatures to get on the ballot in 1988. Each signature had to be collected on an individual postcard. The signatures then had to be filed at their respective county boards of election — which charged 10 cents a signature to verify their validity. Still, we managed to meet that requirement, and to publicize how onerous the requirements were. Other independents picked up on that fight — including the Libertarian Party — which succeeded in getting a statewide referendum in 1998 to change Florida’s constitution. It passed 65% to 35%. Now national parties that are organized in the state can place their presidential candidates on the ballot without having to gather a single signature — just like the Democrats and Republicans do.
My campaign also won federal lawsuits in Florida and North Carolina; invalidating fees which those states charged independent candidates to check the validity of petition signatures — 10 cents in Florida and 5 cents in North Carolina.
On the legislative front, I set up a lobbying operation in 1985 called the Rainbow Lobby (no relation to Jesse Jackson and his Democratic Party operation) to build an agenda for political reform. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, a leading member of the Black Caucus, agreed to introduce a bill that would make ballot access requirements uniform and fair in all elections for federal office. I campaigned for passage of the bill and continued to do so when Congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota and most recently, Ron Paul, himself a former independent Presidential candidate, took over sponsorship of the bill.
Winning on ballot access issues — and political reform issues overall — are a long haul. But they’re important because they go right to the heart, to the core issue in American politics today — control of the political process by the parties and the special interests which dictate their agenda.