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The toll road to public service

by Caleb Talley

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s an election year. Though it’s only February, we’re practically full swing, with a special election primary taking place next week. And if you haven’t yet noticed, candidates are stepping out, left and right, announcing their bids for seats at every level, from city council to the U.S. House of Representatives.

And that’s a great thing. I admire anyone willing to put themselves out there, to be scrutinized and vetted by the public, for the sake of giving back to their community, district, state or country.

I also think it’s a great thing for there to be a number of qualified candidates seeking elected office. It’s reflective of an engaged electorate, a health, robust democracy. And best of all, it gives voters a better opportunity to select the right man or woman for the job. When you have plenty of options, how can you go wrong? (notwithstanding the 2016 Republican primary)

Unfortunately, though, there are many would-be, qualified candidates who are turned off on the prospect of running for office because of the outrageous filing fees levied by our state’s two main political parties. It’s just fine to lead the nation in foreign direct investments and rice production, but do we really have to lead in political pay-to-play, too?

Almost every state in the union sets uniform filing fees for candidates seeking a state office. Arkansas is one of a very select few that allows their political parties to set their own fees. As a result, those fees are far and away greater than most other states. And there’s a serious chasm between what is levied by the two parties.

Candidates for the state’s House of Representatives pay $3,000; that’s regardless of party. But for a state Senate seat, Republican candidates are required to pay $7,000, nearly double that of a Democratic Senate candidate at $4,000.

Republican candidates for state Treasurer, Auditor and Land Commissioner pay $7,500 to file. Democrats running for any of those positions pay $6,000. Republicans running for Secretary of State will shell out $12,500, while a Democrat will pay less than half at $6,000.

To run for Attorney General, a Republican must pay $12,500 to file. Democrats pay $7,500. A Democrat seeking the Lt. Governor seat pays $7,500, too. A Republican will pay $10,000. Candidates for Governor will pay $15,000 if they’re a Republican and $12,000 if they’re a Democrat.

For the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican candidates pay $15,000 to file. Democrats pay $10,000. Prepare to fork out even more dough if you’re interested in a U.S. Senate seat. A Democratic candidate will pay $12,000 to file. A Republican candidate will pay $20,000. That’s nearly half of the median income in Arkansas, per household.

Something’s gotta give. Why is there such a rift between what a candidate in one party pays compared to what a candidate in another pays, all just to serve the public? Why the hell are either of them that high? Perhaps I’m too critical; maybe it’s like this everywhere…

Nope.

Filing fees in Arkansas are among the highest in the entire nation, dwarfing states like Alaska which charges $30 across the board for state offices. In Maryland, it’s $50. Montana is $15, and many other states don’t charge a darn thing to run for a state House of Senate seat. And they do a better job at accommodating qualified, but less moneyed, candidates, too.

In Lubin v. Parish, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that indigent – i.e. poor – candidates could not be required to pay filing fees they could not afford, as long as the candidate was otherwise fully qualified for the office they sought.

A number of states offer explicit indigent exceptions. Arkansas does not. And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average fee for indigent candidates in Arkansas was more than $3,300. Arkansas’ average fee was more than double the next highest, and only four other states had an average fee at $1,000 or higher.

And this year, the Arkansas filing fee inflation is impacting candidates running for county offices. In 2016, Arkansas voters agreed to extend county official terms from two years to four. County political parties have seized on this to jack up local filing fees. And it’s not exclusive to any one part of the state.

The Democratic Party in my native St. Francis County raised filing fees by at least 50 percent. The Garland County Republican Party raised their filing fees by 100 percent. The Republican Party in Washington County doubled their fees. And Democrats in Jefferson County did the same. The Republican Party in Greene County raised their rates by more than 230 percent.

And why? Because they’re serving longer terms? That only means party officials have less work to do on behalf of their candidates every two years.

It also means candidates have to cozy up to donors willing to funnel money into their campaigns – whether directly or indirectly. And candidates who receive large sums of money are more likely to serve the interests of those who helped them pay to play, rather than the constituents they’re sworn to serve.

Exorbitant filing fees don’t benefit the candidates. Elections are already expensive without ’em. And they sure don’t benefit the general public. So, who do they benefit? It’s time for the state to take notice.


In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMPby way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Read more Cash & Candor here

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