In a better world, Mary Norwood would be on the ballot this fall as an independent candidate for Fulton County Commission chair.
In a county long crippled by feuding along racial, political and geographical divides, Norwood’s willingness to serve as a bridge between white and black and Republican and Democrat might have broken up old voting blocs and forced the formation of new coalitions. But she probably won’t get the chance, thanks to her own bureaucratic blunder and to Georgia’s arcane and overly restrictive ballot-access laws.
Norwood’s also not the only victim of those laws.
Ray Boyd, a successful Georgia businessman turned neophyte politician, wanted to launch an independent campaign for governor this year backed by $2 million of his own money. Unfortunately, he withdrew when confronted by state laws designed to make it difficult for independent candidates to get on the ballot. (In fact, Georgia’s ballot-access laws are considered the most restrictive in the country.)
Brad Bryant, appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue last month to fill an unexpired term as state school superintendent, also was forced to drop his bid to run for that office as an independent. To get on the statewide ballot without a major party behind him, Bryant needed signatures from more than 44,000 registered voters, or 1 percent of those registered to vote in the last statewide election. At the deadline, he was at least 8,000 signatures short.
The obstacles to independent candidates are even larger for local partisan races, such as Fulton County commission, and for congressional and state legislative seats. To get on the ballot, independent candidates have to collect signatures from 5 percent of those eligible to vote in those races, which in Norwood’s case meant roughly 22,000 people. It’s testament to her hard work that she was able to overcome that hurdle, generating at least 30,000 signatures in support of her candidacy.
However, Norwood fell victim to another technicality in state law that required her to file papers officially declaring her independent bid by noon, July 2. She missed that deadline by a little more than four hours, which renders her signature-collection effort moot.
Last week, Norwood tried to salvage her candidacy by asking the county elections board to waive that requirement, but it refused to do so. Her supporters complained that the board’s decision was driven by politics, but the requirement in state law is clearly stated, and it gives the board no real leeway.
In a conversation Friday, Norwood insisted that her campaign continues and that she will take her case to court if she confirms that she has enough signatures to qualify. However, the courts aren’t likely to treat her any more kindly than the elections board did.
In each of the cases above, Georgia’s ballot-access laws worked exactly as designed by discouraging candidates who might challenge the two major political parties. Unfair as that seems, it’s not likely to change.
One venue for change would be the courts, but they have already approved such laws. In 1971, in Jenness v. Fortson, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously to uphold Georgia’s ballot-access laws, which even then were among the tightest in the country. That ruling remains one of the most important decisions in ballot-access case law.
And without court prodding, members of the General Assembly aren’t likely to change the law on their own. Opening the process to independent challengers would make campaigns much less predictable, which is the last thing incumbents want.
The truth is, neither major political party has anything to gain by allowing challenges to their political duopoly.