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Cash & Candor: Competition is Good for Democracy, SB163 is Not

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by Caleb Talley

I wondered how deep we would get into the current legislative session before my weekend-column hiatus was forced to end. Less than a month, and I’m surprised it took that long. And since I haven’t contributed to Cash & Candor since November, we’ve got some serious catching up to do.

But first, to address the elephant in the room: Senate Bill 163, the proposed piece of legislation from second-term Senator Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) that’s prompted me to cut short my current Netflix obsession.

SB 163, if passed (and it probably will) would more than double the work requirement for third party candidates to appear on an Arkansas election ballot. Presently, third party candidates need 10,000 valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot, a feat that requires a whole lot of time and manpower.

Garner’s bill would increase that threshold to 3 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Based on 2018 turnout, that would be 26,746 signatures. The bill also includes an emergency clause, which would disrupt efforts for the 2020 election.

One of the biggest opponents to this bill is, of course, the Libertarian Party of Arkansas, the largest and most active third party in the state. The proposed legislation would be detrimental to the party’s efforts in the next election, after seeing their gubernatorial candidate fall just some 800 votes from automatically qualifying for ballot access.

As mentioned, securing ballot access is hard work, and it is expensive. According to state Libertarian Party leader Michael Pakko, it cost the party roughly $30,000 to collect the signatures needed to get on the ballot in 2018. SB 163 would require an estimated 270 percent increase in the cost to attain ballot access.

According to Pakko, to collect the 27,000 signatures needed in the 90-day petitioning period would require 300 valid signatures a day, seven days a week, for the entire three-month span. When you figure that a portion of the signatures collected won’t be qualified, that total goes up to at least 400 signatures a day.

Garner’s proposal would directly inhibit ballet access, which is nothing less than an attack on democracy. I don’t much care for that. It’s an effort to restrict competition in our state’s political process. As with our economy and with our sports, competition in the political process is not only healthy, it’s a prerequisite to longevity.

And after all, Arkansas is an independent state; the majority of our voters don’t readily identify as Republican or Democrat.

According to the latest Arkansas Poll, 38 percent of Arkansas voters said they considered themselves independent or “other.” Compare that to the 32 percent who identified as Republican and 38 percent who identify as Democrats. In 2017, 40 percent said they were independent or “other,” compared to 29 percent who were Republican and 24 percent who were Democrats.

Why, then, would any conscientious lawmaker propose legislation that would limit a voter’s options in the ballot box? Why would any lawmaker vote for it? (27 out of 35 Senators did) The more options we have on Election Day, the healthier our democracy is. Plain and simple.

So, why then does Garner see such a need for this restriction on access? He says he wants to save more room on the ballot for “serious” candidates. He wouldn’t say precisely what he meant by that or which candidates he thought weren’t serious in 2018.

Serious candidates. This, from the serious lawmaker who considered it necessary to establish an official state knife and an official state firearm. Two bills that were scheduled to take up (waste) time in committee this week.

And it’s hard to purport a need for precious ballot space when more than half of the seats in the General Assembly up for election in 2018 were unopposed. As Pakko pointed out in a statement regarding SB 163, there would have been even more unopposed candidates had there not been a number of third-party challengers.

Who are you trying to kid, Trent?

I also find it hard to believe that an individual with a law degree, as Garner has, could not see the legal challenge that will undoubtedly follow the passage of this bill. The Libertarian Party will certainly sue (and they should), and they will most likely be successful. They have legal precedence on their side.

The proposed law would violate the 2006 federal court decision Green Party of Arkansas v. Daniels, in which the court held that “The three percent requirement to certify a new political party … violates plaintiffs’ associational rights guaranteed … by the United States Constitution.” I don’t have a law degree, but I feel like “guaranteed by the United States Constitution” is clear enough for a fifth grader to understand.

Despite the fact that it will assuredly face a successful legal challenge, these Senators gave it their stamp of approval, as did the House committee on state agencies and governmental affairs.

It may be worth noting that, when Garner won his seat in 2016, against an incumbent Democrat, he won with just 9 percent of the vote. The Democrat he defeated had won his seat with only 1 percent of the vote in 2012. If given a choice between Garner and a liberal Democrat, I’d be shopping in the third party aisle.

And perhaps that’s the point.


AmericaIn Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics Editor Caleb Talley dishes on all things business and politics in and around the Natural State. The facts don’t care about your feelings. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Find more Cash & Candor here, or you can read his features in our latest issue of AMP

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