Coming soon to your ballot: not very many independents. That’s not unusual because it’s hard to run as an independent, and they rarely win. But this year there will be even fewer than in the last election, and a new state law may be partly to blame.
Under Act 1356, passed by the Legislature in 2013, independents were required to submit a required number of signatures (generally 3 percent of registered voters) when they filed for office. The deadline for filing and for presenting signatures was March 3. Under the previous law, they could file up to the deadline and then collect signatures until May 1 – almost up to the date of party primaries.
Has the law had an effect? In 2012, there were seven independent legislative candidates. This year, there was one: George Pritchett of Hot Springs, who is running for the state Senate. Of course, there could be other factors besides the law.
There is also Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, who filed to run as lieutenant governor but did not submit any signatures. Moore and two other potential candidates have filled suit in District Judge James Moody’s court seeking an injunction because they say the March 3 signature deadline creates an unfair burden on them and other independents.
The plaintiffs are confident that previous court rulings in Arkansas are on their side. In 1976, a three-judge district panel ruled in Lendall vs. Jernigan that an April signature deadline for independents was so early that it was unconstitutional. That’s April, not March. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision. "In almost every state, if you put independent deadlines before primaries for major parties, they have been declared unconstitutional," plaintiffs’ attorney James Linger of Tulsa told me.
Moore, the potential lieutenant governor candidate, ran for state representative in 2012 and collected 39 percent of the vote in a two-person race. That’s a lot for an independent.
For that race, he was required to collect 351 signatures to get on the ballot. On a good evening in March and April, he could collect 15-20 signatures going door to door, which wasn’t terribly difficult. That’s harder to do in December, January and February, when it gets dark at 5 p.m. and people are less interested in standing in a cold open doorway to talk to a political candidate holding a pen and a clipboard.
The new early deadline also has made it nearly impossible for independents to jump into a race when an incumbent decides near the filing deadline not to run for office, leaving the seat open and winnable. A party candidate can drive down to the Capitol and pay a last minute filing fee a lot easier than an independent can collect signatures.
"Really, they’ve just made it a lot harder on independents and independents alone to get on the ballot," he said.
The sponsor of the law – which had other election-related provisions – was Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard, R-Gravette, a retired county clerk, while its lone co-sponsor was Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena.
Bell said the change in the signature deadline was made to create "an equal footing with regard to timetable," not to try to burden independent candidates. When independents had until May 1 to turn in their signatures, that meant party candidates weren’t really sure about the election landscape until shortly before the party primary. That affected fundraising, volunteer recruitment and other activities, he said.
Bell, who once was elected constable as an independent, argued that it’s actually easier to collect signatures in the winter because people are more likely to be home. Besides, the best way to collect signatures is by finding large groups of people, not walking door to door.
"The ones who are complaining about it being a barrier are the same candidates who frankly aren’t going to be competitive in the election," he said.
Could there be a compromise: Keep the March 3 deadline, but give independent candidates more than 90 days to collect signatures?
Bell said he was open to that idea. Moore wasn’t because he said it’s still not fair to independents who decide to file when a seat comes open at the last minute.
"I won’t accept anything other than independents having the same options as a party candidate," he said. "And why should we? Judges agree with us."
We’ll see if that includes Judge Moody, who is the judge that matters at the moment.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com.