Proposals for state amendments could spur growth of third parties

Monday, November 28, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Some candidates already are campaigning and fund raising for the 2006 elections, some even for the 2008 elections. So consider this hypothetical ballot for governor three years from now:

* Matt Blunt, Republican Party

* Jay Nixon, Democratic Party

* Matt Blunt, Rural Conservative Party

* Jay Nixon, Labor Rights Party

Unfamiliar with the Rural Conservative or Labor Rights parties? That's because they don't exist.

But they could -- or something like them could -- under a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that would make it easier for minor political parties to form and gain strength.

The initiatives, recently approved for petition gathering by the secretary of state's office, would allow third parties to endorse major party candidates on the ballot -- an option that could attract more votes to minor political parties, and thus ensure their continued ballot presence in the future.

The proposal is in its infancy, and its backers at this point are somewhat mysterious. It's unlikely they even will follow through on the petition drive needed to qualify for the 2006 elections.

Not a new idea

But the concept actually is an old one. In the 1800s, most states allowed candidates to carry multiple party affiliations. It's only in the last century that the practice was widely outlawed. The ballot proposals would reverse that for the 21st century.

"Opening the process up is inherently a good thing. When voters have more choices, they're more likely to turn out," said Jeff Ordower, the Midwest director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.

For now, ACORN is the only group publicly acknowledging its involvement in the proposed ballot initiatives.

The proposals (there are two slightly different versions submitted) list as a contact St. Louis attorney Jerald Hochsztein, who has represented labor groups. But Hochsztein repeatedly said he was not at liberty to talk about the proposals. He eventually had Ordower return a call.

Ordower said a number of organizations are thinking and talking about the proposal, but he declined to identify them. At this point, he said, the initiatives are more of a trial balloon designed to gauge public interest.

Gathering signatures

At the root of the proposal is a state law what requires new parties to gather petition signatures from at least 10,000 registered voters to qualify their candidates for the statewide ballot. To remain on the ballot for the next two elections, one of the party's candidates must receive at least 2 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the party must gather petition signatures again.

The 2 percent threshold may not sound high. But in 2004, the Libertarian Party was the only party besides the Democrats and Republicans to meet the mark.

That's because it's hard for unknown candidates in minor parties to get any attention. And because minor party candidates are unlikely to win, many voters instead choose major party candidates on the belief their votes have a greater chance of affecting the outcome.

If minor parties were allowed to endorse major party candidates, the Libertarian Party could theoretically endorse Republican Blunt or Democrat Nixon. Or a new party could form reflecting a certain ideological base and also nominate Blunt or Nixon.

Under the hypothetical ballot presented above, Blunt would get all the votes cast under either the Republican or the Rural Conservative label. But voters upset with the Republican Party would have a way of voicing their discontent while still backing Blunt. And the Rural Conservative Party could more easily obtain the 2 percent threshold needed to solidify its status for future elections.

The Libertarian Party has taken no position on the proposal, said party executive director Greg Tlapek.

But "from my initial reading, I thought this would make it a whole lot easier to maintain ballot status," he said.

Banned in 40 states

Forty states currently ban multiple party nominations, while 10 generally allow it -- either explicitly or due to an absence of any prohibition, according to The New Majority Education Fund, a group supporting the concept it terms as "fusion." The group's Web site lists a Montana contact, but no one immediately returned a message last week.

It's unclear whether either the Democrats or Republicans have more to gain or lose if multiparty endorsements are allowed in Missouri. That would depend on what parties form and whether they lean more to the left or right.

But proponents contend the public would benefit by more political parties. That's because the more closely voters can identify with a party or candidate, the more likely they are to actually vote.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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