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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NH libertarians challenge new limit on gathering nomination papers

CONCORD – A new election law that went into effect Tuesday faces a court challenge from the New Hampshire Libertarian Party, which argues that the measure will limit ballot access for third parties in the state.

Lawmakers approved a change this year that stipulates parties seeking to get on the ballot cannot begin collecting nomination papers before the start of the year in which the election takes place. ...

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CONCORD – A new election law that went into effect Tuesday faces a court challenge from the New Hampshire Libertarian Party, which argues that the measure will limit ballot access for third parties in the state.

Lawmakers approved a change this year that stipulates parties seeking to get on the ballot cannot begin collecting nomination papers before the start of the year in which the election takes place.

For example, a party seeking to get on the ballot in 2016 could not begin collecting signatures before Jan. 1, 2016.

As a result, third parties will have slightly more than seven months to collect the thousands of signatures necessary for their candidates to appear alongside Democrats and Republicans on the ballot.

The New Hampshire Libertarian Party contends that the new measure places a substantial burden on third parties and limits their ability to fundraise and campaign because party members will be busy collecting signatures instead.

“In our view, the law limits voter choice and stacks the deck against candidates who, like members of the Libertarian Party, don’t belong to a major party,” said New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union attorney Gilles Bissonnette.

NHCLU is representing the Libertarian Party in a lawsuit against New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire.

The lawsuit alleges that the new election law is unconstitutional because it violates First and Fourteenth Amendment protections guaranteeing the right of individuals to associate for the advancement of political beliefs and to vote regardless of political persuasion.

Previously, state law did not specify a point before which parties could not begin collecting nomination papers. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the change was intended to provide more guidance while still leaving sufficient time for third parties to collect signatures, which are intended to show that the party has attained a base level of support in the state.

Narrowing the window is also intended to reduce the number of invalid signatures submitted to the state.

Scanlan said election officials are reviewing the lawsuit and preparing their response.

“I don’t think it’s prohibitive,” he said of the new regulation.

New Hampshire law provides two mechanisms for parties to get on the ballot: collecting nomination papers or nominating a candidate for governor or U.S. Senate who wins at least 4 percent of the vote in the general election.

Getting on the ballot via nomination papers requires third parties to collect signatures from a number of voters equal to 3 percent of the total votes cast during the previous general election. Based on recent voter turnout, the Libertarian Party estimates that it would need to submit more than 13,000 signatures to get on the ballot for the 2016 general election.

With the party already struggling for recognition, Bissonnette said the new measure will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the party to qualify for spots on the ballot in the future.

The last two times the Libertarian Party achieved that goal, organizers began collecting signatures well in advance of the start of the election year. The party began lining up nomination papers in April 1999 ahead of the 2000 election and in August 2011 ahead of the 2012 election, according to its lawsuit.

The court challenge alleges that the state hasn’t articulated any compelling reason why the regulations needed to change. Bills authorizing the new language were passed in the House and Senate with little discussion, according to the suit.

A legislative record indicates that the House Election Law Committee recommended the new provision on a 14-1 vote Feb. 14. The measure was requested by the secretary of state in an effort to reduce the number of invalid signatures due to death or relocation, the legislative record indicates.

NHCLU maintains that the state failed to provide any evidence that imposing a Jan. 1 start date will cut down the number of invalid signatures.

During its most recent appearance on the ballot in New Hampshire in 2012, the Libertarian party nominated John Babiarz for governor. Babiarz received 2.8 percent of the vote. Other Libertarians on the ballot won between 3.3 percent and 5.9 percent of the vote in their respective races.

Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).