County election commissioners in Syracuse, N.Y., have issued new proposals designed to make it harder for smaller political parties to operate in the state, but third-party officials are complaining that the rules could make it nearly impossible for new third parties to qualify.

According to the Albany Times-Union newspaper, commissioners believe the state’s ballots are already too crowded and say the changes would free up ballot space and ease voting at the polls.

One change, the paper said, would require that third-party gubernatorial candidates win at least 100,000 votes — up from the current level of 50,000 — in statewide races in order to qualify to run another candidate in the next gubernatorial race four years later.

But officials of third parties currently certified in New York and elsewhere say the new rules likely would prohibit them from ever making any political gains in one of the most heavily populated states in the union. Also, they say qualifying candidates to run against the so-called “two-party system” of Democrats and Republicans is already difficult enough.

The changes — which would ultimately have to be approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. George Pataki — have been criticized by some members of both major political parties, although state Republican leaders seem more receptive to them, the paper said.

“I don’t think [third parties] should be stifled or stamped out because someone wants to have more space on the ballot machine,” Michael Long, chairman of the Conservative Party in New York and a close ally of Pataki, told the newspaper.

Other third-party officials have also decried New York’s election commission proposals, as well as the overall difficulty in getting third-party candidates listed in races across the country.

“Every third party has a story to tell,” Bev Kidder, public relations director for the Reform Party, told WorldNetDaily. “But I think difficulty in gaining ballot access really started in earnest after the turn of the 20th century.”

Until about 1920, she said, “multiple parties were commonplace. But, with the advent of communism, the laws changed.”

According to Kidder, “as the communist movement spread across Europe, ballot access restriction starting going up,” in an effort to keep the Communist Party from becoming a force in America.

In fact, Kidder said, in her home state of New Jersey, “there has not been an official third party in this state … basically because of the laws changed in 1920.”

Jerry Baxley, a founding member and currently the national director of the Southern Party, expressed similar frustrations at the qualifications needed to get candidates on statewide ballots.

Though the party is now listed officially in two states — Florida and, most recently, Oklahoma — getting there has been an uphill battle, and one that Baxley said is prohibitive because of qualifying rules foisted on third parties by controlling Democrats and Republicans.

“Where we’ve had our problem is, in the other states, we are really bound by terrible laws,” he said. “In Virginia, for example, where we’re planning to run someone for the House of Delegates this year, I have called the election board and asked them, ‘What do we need to run a candidate?’ We can’t get on the ballot as the Southern Party yet because we first have to run a gubernatorial race.”

Baxley went on to say that “the only way we can do this is to first get 10,000 signatures.” He said the House race would be easier in terms of signatures and money, “but the kicker is, we can’t start ballot access until they redistrict — and nobody knows when that will take place,” even though races are scheduled for this fall.

He also said that “some states are just impossible — like North Carolina,” where the party needs over 360,000 signatures just to qualify candidates.

In New York, Raymond Harding, who heads the Liberal Party, also blamed Republican and Democratic party control of the election commissions throughout the state as the reason why the new proposals are harder on third parties.

“What would be news is if these party hacks would say, ‘We nurture and welcome third parties in the state,’ which happens to be the public policy of the state of New York and has been since the 1930s,” he told the Times-Union.

Parties listed officially in New York are: Republican, Democrat, Independence, Conservative, Liberal, Right-to-Life, Green and the Working Families Party.

Baxley said there is also an institutional bias against parties other than Democrats and Republicans.

“This is just scuttlebutt, but when we tried to run a candidate in Florida recently,” he said, “we were told that [Secretary of State Katherine] Harris wasn’t going to let any Southern Party candidates run for any office in Florida.

“We had to get a lawyer to file a suit” to get the candidate listed on the party’s ticket, “but [the judge] ruled against us because the time limit to file had passed.”

“This is what we go through … in most states,” he said. “In West Virginia, for instance, all you need is about 82,000 signatures” to have candidates put on ballots. “But anyone who signs the ballot access form can then not vote in the primaries. In other words, you have to get the signatures, but then anyone who signs can’t vote. Crazy.”

Also, third party officials say they don’t have enough ready access to national political processes, such as the televised presidential debates.

During the 2000 election cycle, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan complained that the rules for including third-party candidates in the debates — formulated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which again is staffed by Republicans and Democrats only — were too unrealistic and stringent.

The commission’s rules state that no presidential candidate from any party that does not have at least 15 percent support in a series of national polls can be included. Also, the commission says a candidate’s name must appear on enough ballots in enough states to theoretically qualify to win an electoral majority.

Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission’s rules state that only parties receiving 5 percent of the national tally qualify for federal matching funds to run their campaigns.

While ballot access in most states is automatic for Democrats and Republicans, third-party candidates often spend most of their already scarce resources filling out extra paperwork and “jumping through hoops,” Baxley said, rather than promoting individual candidates or the party as a whole.

Asked if Democratic and Republican lawmakers in states and on the federal level have expressed any interest in making it easier for third parties to compete, most third party officials don’t hesitate to offer this answer: “No.”

Baxley said the only way to “change the system is to do it from within” — meaning parties will have to win state and local races in order to gain “enough power and momentum to change this system.”

To some degree, however, there has been movement on improving ballot access for third parties.

According to the February issue of Ballot Access News, an online electronic newsletter that features news and reports about ballot access, “legislators in 46 states have begun introducing” ballot access bills, and “nine states have bills which would help voters to vote for minor party and independent candidates.”

Connecticut, Georgia, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming all have had bills introduced into state legislatures. The bills range from allowing parties who poll 1 percent in statewide ballots access to all races (Connecticut) to bills that allow candidates of unqualified parties to list their party next to their names on the general election ballot (Virginia), and one that legalizes presidential write-in balloting (Nebraska).

The group said more ballot access bills would likely be introduced soon in Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.