Staff Columnist

Iowa GOP bill would unfairly restrict ballot access

Greens and Libertarians team up to resist proposal

I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
I Voted Today stickers lay on the table next to the ballot box at the early polling station at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

A bill in the Iowa Legislature to change Iowa’s ballot access law isn’t just a bad idea. It might be illegal.

Iowa law provides different filing deadlines for major party candidates, who compete in primaries, and non-party political organization candidates, who are nominated by petition. Currently, the later group can file later, 73 days before the date of the November general election.

House File 335, introduced by state Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa, R-Council Bluffs, would amend the law and hold non-party political organizations’ candidates to the same filing deadline, 81 days before the June primary, or about five months earlier than their existing deadline.

Organizers of the Iowa Libertarian Party and Iowa Green Party — classified as non-party political organizations by the state — say that would create major logistical challenges for their candidates. In a rare move, the chairmen of the two parties — whose political philosophies could hardly be more different — issued a joint statement decrying the proposal.

“We do not see any true benefit to the citizens of Iowa if this is passed into law, we do understand this partisan bill is meant to protect the establishment parties at the expense of the Constitution and Iowa voters,” Libertarian chairman Joseph Howe and Green chairman Henry Gaff wrote.

Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential race, the early deadline would be a major barrier to third-party participation. The new March deadline for Greens and Libertarians would come before either party has nominated its presidential candidate.

That’s a problem, because to be recognized as an official political party under Iowa law, presidential and gubernatorial candidates must receive at least 2 percent of the vote statewide. Iowa Libertarians achieved that when Gary Johnson won almost 4 percent here in 2016, but they lost status after Jake Porter fell a few thousand votes short in last November’s governor race.

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If alternative parties can’t get their candidates on the ballot, they have no hope to attain official party status. It’s a classic Lucy-vs-Charlie situation: Third-party activists are Charlie Brown, charging toward a football representing party status, and major-party Lucy snatches it away.

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, was the dissenting vote in the three-person subcommittee vote last week. He said the bill does not address any legitimate problem, and predicts his Democratic colleagues will be against it if it comes to a floor vote.

“I’m totally against the bill. I think it’s a blatant attempt to try to get rid of any third parties — Libertarians, Green Party or whoever,” Hunter told me last week.

Hanusa, the Republican sponsor of the bill, did not respond to my request for an interview last week.

If this bill passes, Libertarians say they may still be able to place a 2020 presidential candidate on the ballot in Iowa, but the process would be more complicated. They would have to file a placeholder candidate before the new March deadline, then withdraw and replace that candidate after Libertarian National Convention delegates select the party nominee during the following summer.

“Pretty weird and unnecessary. Just another hurdle to make ballot access more difficult,” Howe wrote to me in a message criticizing the bill earlier this month.

Republicans and Democrats alike have a long history of erecting barriers to third-party and no-party participation in the electoral process. It’s seen as politically expedient, since conventional wisdom holds that Libertarians siphon votes from Republicans, and Greens siphon votes from Democrats.

However, other states that have tried to restrict ballot access in similar ways have faced legal challenges.

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In the 1980s, independent presidential candidate John Anderson challenged an Ohio law that required candidates to file their papers in March. A narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled the early deadline “places a particular burden on identifiable segment of Ohio’s independent-minded voters.”

As I’ve written before, third-party and no-party campaigns should be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits. Partisan opponents who hope to muck up the process are inviting legal problems Iowa doesn’t need.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Updated Monday, Feb. 25: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported the Libertarian National Committee will nominate the party’s presidential candidate. In fact, state delegates will nominate a candidate at the Libertarian National Convention.

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