ON Election Day four years ago, voters in Colorado had a choice not just between Barack Obama and John McCain, but among 14 other people who were running for president. In Colorado, getting on the ballot in presidential races only requires that candidates fork over $500 and provide an affidavit of intent.
Colorado's ballot access law may be too lax, but Oklahoma's law is at the other end of the spectrum, making it exceedingly difficult for third parties to put a candidate before voters. This year, just as in 2008 and 2004, Oklahomans had only two options for president, the Democrat or the Republican. Twelve years ago, Pat Buchanan managed to get on the ballot here as an independent.
There was the potential for a third candidate this year when the Americans Elect Party made its way onto the ballot. But the national party failed to recruit a candidate. Oklahoma law requires that in order to remain on the ballot, a party's candidate for governor or president must get at least 10 percent of the total votes cast in the general election. Last week, state election officials voted to no longer recognize the party.
The Americans Elect Party — or any third party — can make its way onto the ballot in Oklahoma by collecting signatures of registered voters equal to 5 percent of the last vote cast for the office at the top of the ticket. This year the presidency was at the top of the ticket. About 1.33 million Oklahomans voted, which means a third party would need to gather roughly 66,700 signatures.
A candidate wanting to run as an independent for president can do so by gathering signatures equal to 3 percent of the last presidential vote. That would be close to 40,000 signatures — a tall order.
Why? It wasn't always this way in Oklahoma. Indeed from 1924 until 1974, just 5,000 signatures were needed to gain ballot access. We're not aware of ballots being overwhelmed with candidates during that time, just as they generally aren't today in states with less-restrictive rules than Oklahoma.
Proponents of ballot access reform have worked for years to get our laws changed. In 2009, a bill that would have made it easier for third-party candidates won approval in the House and Senate, then stalled in a conference committee. Two years later, the House passed a bill that would have reduced the number of petition signatures needed. It went nowhere in the Senate.
This year, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, was on the ballot in 47 states. At a rally here in October, Johnson said candidates shouldn't be kept off the ballot “in an attempt to simply foster and continue to prop up the two-party system. The people deserve the ability to vote for the candidate of their choice.”
During an appearance in Oklahoma City two years ago, consumer advocate Ralph Nader said our state's ballot access rules are among the nation's toughest. “A competitive democracy with multiple candidates, multiple ideas, multiple backgrounds and multiple agendas is going to bring more people out to vote and we're going to have a better political process,” he said.
Donna Bebo, who ran as a Democrat for the 4th Congressional District seat, put it this way: “Candidates should not win simply because of who they keep off the ballot. They should win on their own merit.” She has a point.
In conservative Oklahoma, Republicans enjoy firm and growing control of the Legislature. They have nothing to fear from providing a voice to others, by lowering some of the significant hurdles now in place for third-party candidates trying to get on our ballot.