Hopefuls for political office who would rather run under a third-party banner than either of the nation’s two dominant parties are only one signature away from having easier ballot access in Tennessee.
But some Democratic critics say a plan passed by the Senate Monday doesn’t go far enough.
“I always found that the people who win the elections are the least likely to want to change the rules. Have you ever noticed that?” said Sen. Jim Kyle, the leading Senate Democrat, who attacked Republicans for resisting further reforms to third-party ballot access. “You keep pushing folks down. You don’t address the issues of the day, and they will leave. Folks are trying to start a new party.”
The Senate voted 24-9 to reduce state law on third-party ballot recognition, which allows groups like the Tea Party, the Green Party or the Libertarian Party a slot on the ballot. The House voted approved the plan 92-1 last month. The measure now goes to the governor for his signature.
Senate Bill 935 tinkers with state laws that a federal judge found unconstitutional last fall. U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ruled in September that requiring a third party to produce 40,000 petition signatures to recognize the party on the ballot was OK, but rules stipulating that signers actually belong to that party were a violation of voter privacy.
The bill removes the requirement that voters belong to the third party but retains the 40,000 signature threshold, which Democrats argue is far too high.
Under the bill, candidates wanting to run under a third-party banner would need to collectively gather roughly 40,000 signatures — equal to 2.5 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — from voters wanting to see that third party on the ballot.
Kyle pushed to lower the threshold to 10,000 signatures with at least 2,000 voters signing on from each of the three grand divisions. That proposal died on a party line vote, 19-14.
Sen. Mark Norris, the Republican leader sponsoring the bill, drafted an amendment doing the same thing, but decided to kill it in favor of getting the bill OK’d quickly.
“Let’s take what we can get. We’re the ones that have make it easier for minor parties to qualify, and we’ll stand on that,” Norris told TNReport after the vote.
The two leaders sparred on Twitter shortly after the vote, trading blame for the currently restrictive ballot access requirements.
Kyle tweeted: “Very disappointed, Tea Party smashed by Republicans. No one can run as a member of the Tea Party.”
Norris responded: “Crocodile tears! 27 years of hypocrisy ended by majority tonite.”
Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Republican who often aligns himself with the Tea Party, previously argued lawmakers should be recognized under multiple party platforms if nominated. But the Knoxville Republican pulled all four of his given rewrites, telling TNReport that he lacked enough support within the caucus to get his proposals off the ground.
Robert Kilmarx, director of the Tennessee Tea Party, said the measure hasn’t been on the party’s official radar this year. The party has been active in Tennessee politics, hosting rallies and trying to influence legislation.
“I’m not a strong proponent of third-party movements right now but still would like to see things come together and build a stronger conservative Republican party rather than splitting the Republican initiatitve,” Kilmarx said. “But I wouldn’t want to see legislation that would make it hard for third parties to get on the ballots.”
Gov. Bill Haslam can choose to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.