March 29, 2011

A vast majority of American voters cast their ballots for one of two parties, not only recently but going all the way back to the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans in the early days of presidential politics.

But third parties – the generic name given to political parties opposing Democrats and Republicans – deserve to have their names on the ballot and try to win public approval.

The state Legislature has an opportunity to make that happen this term, and that should be one of its accomplishments when the session ends.

Earlier this month, a Senate committee unanimously approved a bill that would make it easier for third parties to be listed on ballots in Tennessee. The legislation will bring the state into compliance with a federal ruling, a strong indication that the measure is long overdue.

U.S. District Judge William Haynes of Nashville ruled in September 2010 that current state law discriminates against third parties in favor of Democrats and Republicans. Haynes’ ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by the Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties.

They claimed that candidates from these and other political parties challenging Democrats and Republicans had to run for office as Independents and not with the name of their party. Haynes rightfully did not order a specific remedy but instead left the matter up to the Legislature.

However, he indicated that he could issue another ruling if the legislators fail to act, according to Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is sponsoring the current legislation, SB935.

Norris’ bill stipulates that third parties can have their names on the ballot beside the names of the nominees if the party collects signatures of registered voters totaling 2.5 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial race. Based on the 2010 election, that would mean collecting the signatures of about 60,000 registered voters, said Mark Goins, state elections coordinator.

Unlike the current law, the legislation proposed by Norris does not require the registered voters signing the petition to certify membership in the party. The bill also eliminates or revises other technical requirements to have the party label on the ballot.

At the same time, state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has filed a bill that would enable a third party to identify its candidates on an election ballot if it files a petition signed by 2,500 voters and files a copy of its bylaws, making it even easier for those parties to get on the Tennessee ballot.

Third parties have provided a colorful and thoughtful element to American politics, although none in modern times has been able to displace either of the top two. Nevertheless, there is always that possibility in an open and free society.

The Legislature also is considering a date for the 2012 state primary, when party delegates for national conventions will be selected. That primary will take place about a year from now, give or take a couple of months. Thus, it is important to settle this issue and give third parties the fighting chance they deserve.


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