Suit Filed Over Restrictive State Ballot Access Law

February 3, 2009 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island elections officials on behalf of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island (MPRI), challenging the State’s restrictive ballot access laws. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark W. Freel, argues that the laws unconstitutionally impede the ability of fledgling groups like MPRI from gaining formal recognition as a political party.

At issue in the lawsuit is a state statute that bars any new political party from collecting in an off-election year the signatures necessary to gain state recognition as a party. Instead, the party must wait until the beginning of the election year to do so. This provision prevents MPRI from raising money and organizing in 2009, while allowing the two major political parties to organize and raise funds at will.

In addition, the statute requires a new political party to collect signatures representing 5% of the voter turnout for the 2008 elections (roughly 23,500 certified signatures of registered voters) in order to gain recognition as a party. Many states have far lower signature thresholds for party recognition.

The lawsuit argues that “having to collect the required number of signatures in the limited time window permitted by law, and not being able to commence that process until January 1, 2010, creates an arbitrary, unjustifiable and ultimately impermissible burden that makes the task far more difficult to accomplish.” The suit notes that MPRI officials “are ready, willing, and able to commence collecting the necessary signatures for recognition now, but are currently forced to wait” until 2010.

As a result, they are “unjustly forced to compete in the political arena at a distinct political and financial disadvantage, when compared to previously recognized political parties.” The suit argues that these burdensome restrictions violate MPRI’s First Amendment rights.

The suit is seeking a court order declaring the contested provisions unconstitutional and enjoining their enforcement.

Existing state law sets up any new political party for a perpetual cycle of failure” said Ken Block, Chairman of MPRI.

“The new party cannot raise money until state recognition is granted, which doesn’t occur until 23,500 valid signatures have been collected and then confirmed by the local boards of canvassers. This process cannot commence until January 2010 and is unlikely to be finished until May or June 2010, best case.

Imagine trying to run successful campaigns for the General Assembly and State officer positions starting with a bank balance of zero in June of the year of the election!”

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Freel said today: “Preventing a new and fledgling third political party like the Moderate Party from being able to move forward with the collection of thousands of statewide signatures until January 1 of an election year makes no sense and places them at a tremendous disadvantage.

The Moderate Party is ready to start its work now, and should have the ability to do so, consistent with their constitutional rights of free speech, association and due process, and in order to provide fair and unfettered access to the ballot for all.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown, noting the ACLU’s non-partisan status, added: “Whatever one’s views of the Moderate Party, it should be entitled to compete in the electoral arena on a fair basis. The state laws we are challenging serve no purpose other than to impose unnecessary barriers against the formation of third parties. This is harmful not only to groups like the Moderate Party, but to voters themselves whose choices are arbitrarily limited.”

Block described MPRI as being “dedicated to centrist governance, focusing on four major issues affecting all Rhode Islanders: Ethics, the Economy, Education and the Environment.

MPRI’s focus is the General Assembly, where the Party believes that current massive imbalance of power leads to poor legislating.

We believe that good governance is the result of compromise and moderation, activities that do not occur when a single party has a 90% majority. That is why we have started this new party.” During the 2008 elections, MPRI, through a PAC, endorsed a slate of candidates for the General Assembly and published a platform describing its position on numerous issues of public concern.

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