The North Dakota Libertarian Party is suing Secretary of State Al Jaeger over election laws it says unfairly target third parties.
Party Chairman Richard Ames and two other Libertarian candidates for the Legislature were barred from advancing to the general election because they didn’t get the required number of votes in the state primary.
The number varies slightly by district. In Ames’ case, as in most cases, he would have needed about 130 votes to move on to the general election.
Oliver Hall, the attorney for the party and the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Competitive Democracy, said North Dakota is the only state in the U.S. where candidates face such a requirement after they already got 7,000 signatures to compete in the primary.
“We’re asking the court to strike down the law as unconstitutional,” said Hall.
His argument is based on the First Amendment’s guarantee to free speech and assembly and 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection of the law.
Hall said that while the current system may be designed for parties to be able to demonstrate wide-ranging support, Libertarians and other parties have already done so by gathering the 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Two of the party’s statewide candidates made it on the ballot, but none of the three candidates for legislative office got the required number of votes to move on to the general election. The lawsuit is on their behalf only.
Hall said the difference between the legislative candidates and the statewide candidates is the size of the pool from which they have to draw. Statewide candidates must get 300 votes to advance to the primary, yet they draw from a pool of all voters in the election. While legislative candidates must get nearly half the number of votes, they can only get them from 1/47 of the voting population. North Dakota has been divided into 47 legislative districts.
States are able to protect the orderliness of the ballot by requiring parties to get 7,000 signatures Hall said. But the disparity between the votes statewide and legislative candidates have to get and the pools they can to draw those votes from shows the regulation is “not narrowly tailored enough to serve any legitimate state purpose.”
Hall described narrowly tailored as being the least intrusive manner for a state to advance its interest.
Jaeger said it’s not his job to determine whether the laws he enforces are constitutional.
“We follow the law, and if they disagree with the law, they have the right to pursue satisfaction for whatever they feel is a problem,” he said.
The lawsuit will need to come to a speedy resolution to have an impact on this election cycle. Ballots can be printed as early as Sept. 3.
Ames, who is hopeful everything will be settled before that date, said regardless, the lawsuit will make a difference “for all other parties that can be taken out of the debate, regardless of their platform.”
Hall said Minnesota once had a similar law requiring a particular candidate vote total, but its Supreme Court struck it down, leaving North Dakota as the only remaining state with such a law.
While all other states have had a third-party state legislative candidate appear on the ballot sometime this decade, North Dakota has not had such a candidate since 1976, according to information compiled by Ballot Access News.
Hall, who is admitted in both the D.C. and Massachusetts bar, must get a visiting attorney status to argue the case in North Dakota. That paperwork is still pending.
(Reach reporter Rebecca Beitsch at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)