Measure to ID 3rd parties advances

On March 16, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

Committee approves bill to list affiliation on ballots by petition

By Tom Humphrey,
March 16, 2011

NASHVILLE – A Senate committee unanimously approved Tuesday a bill that would make it easier for third parties to be listed on Tennessee ballots and bring the state into compliance with a federal court ruling.

U.S. District Judge William Haynes of Nashville ruled last September that current state law wrongfully discriminates against third parties in favor of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties, which argued that present law forces their candidates to run in Tennessee as independent candidates without a party identification.

The judge did not order any specific remedy, but left the door open to doing so if his ruling is ignored, said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsor of the legislation.

“Essentially, if the Legislature doesn’t take action, the court will,” Norris told the Senate State and Local Government Committee in urging prompt passage of SB935.

Under the bill, third parties could have their names listed on Tennessee ballots beside their nominees if the party collects signatures from enough registered voters to total 2.5 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial race. Based on the 2010 election, that would mean about 60,000 voters, according to state Election Coordinator Mark Goins.

The bill was approved 9-0 by the committee and now goes to the Senate floor.

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, voted for the measure but told colleagues he would prefer even easier qualifying for third-party candidates. He has filed a bill that would allow a party to meet standards for identifying its candidates on the ballot by filing a petition signed by 2,500 voters and a copy of its party bylaws.

As things stand now, a party must either have had a nominee receiving 5 percent or more of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election – which means Democrats and Republicans automatically qualify – or collect signatures from 2.5 percent of voters on a petition declaring their membership in the third party in a 120-day period.

Under the bill, those signing the petition need not certify membership in the party. The bill also eliminates or revises other, more technical requirements for having party label on ballots.

Daniel Lewis, chairman of the Davidson County Libertarian Party, who was on hand for the committee discussion, said Libertarians preferred Campfield’s approach but felt the Norris bill was a step in the right direction.

Tennessee’s presidential preference primary would be moved from the first Tuesday in February to the first Tuesday in March under a bill debated by the Senate committee, though a vote was put off until next week.

Republican Norris, who is sponsoring the bill, said it accommodates requests from the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. The idea, he said, is to “team up with some other states” to perhaps gain more national attention to the Tennessee primary.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis has a bill, SB1875, which would instead set the presidential primary on the first Tuesday in May. Kyle told the senators he would not oppose the Norris bill, but wanted them to be mindful of the impact of the presidential primary date on local elections.

Most cities and counties set their local primary election dates to coincide with the statewide presidential primary date, since they then avoid having to pay most of the election costs. With a February or March primary, Kyle said, local candidates must file their qualifying petitions in November or December, and some potential challengers to incumbents often do not realize that fact, leaving incumbents with “a free ride.”

Both bills will be back before the committee next week.

Legislation to abolish 10 special legislative committees was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate committee after the sponsor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, said it would streamline the legislative process and save about $850,000 per year.

Objections came from Democrats on the panel, who tried to amend the measure (SB725) to allow the Corrections Oversight Committee and the Select Committee on Children and Youth to continue in existence. The amendment was killed, with all Republicans voting against it and all Democrats voting for it.

Ramsey said regular legislative committees – perhaps with some members set up as a subcommittee – can handle the duties of the special committees.

House Speaker Beth Harwell is sponsoring the bill in the House.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to make it harder for teachers to acquire tenure cleared another committee Tuesday. Approval of the measure by the House Education Committee was on voice vote and not recorded, but it appears that all Republicans voiced support while most Democrats did not.

The bill already has been approved by the Senate. With the latest House committee approval, it is on track to clear the House as early as Thursday, though possibly next week.

Haslam, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that he plans to use $20 million in federal funds and a like amount raised through a public-private partnership to help create up to 40 new charter schools in the state.

The governor is pushing a bill in the Legislature to allow more charter schools in Tennessee and to allow the state Department of Education to certify charter schools, which now can be approved only by local school boards.


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