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Court backs Alabama's ballot laws
Independent candidates say requirements too tough

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Three independent candidates lost a challenge to Alabama's ballot access laws, which are among the toughest in the nation.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 3-0 ruling saying the state's ballot access laws are reasonable and do not violate the constitutional rights of independent candidates.

Johnny Swanson of Birmingham, who tried unsuccessfully to run as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2002, said he was disappointed by the ruling. He said it takes 30,000 to 40,000 valid signatures of voters for an independent candidate to qualify for a statewide office, and achieving that takes more volunteers and money than most independent candidates have.

"You have to be a mastermind to figure out a way to get 30,000 to 40,000 signatures they will accept," he said Thursday.

It's so tough, Swanson said, that he plans to run for the U.S. Senate again next year as a Democrat, which won't require him to collect thousands of signatures.

Attorney General Troy King, who was sued by the independent candidates, was out of the office Thursday, but spokeswoman Joy Patterson said King was pleased with the decision.

Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said the decision leaves Alabama with the toughest requirement of any state for independent candidates and minor parties to qualify for statewide races. He said some other states have tougher requirements for local races.

New requirements

In 1995, the Legislature enacted new requirements for independent candidates and minor parties to get on the ballot. They have to get voters' signatures on a petition that equal 3 percent of the ballots cast in that election district in the last general election for governor. The requirement can range from a few hundred signatures for a local race to about 40,000 for a statewide office.

In 2001, the Legislature moved up the date that independent candidates and minor parties had to present the signatures to the date of the primary election in June.

In 2002, Swanson filed a lawsuit challenging the laws, along with Frank Cobb of Piedmont, an independent candidate for the Alabama House, and Joseph Grimsley, an independent candidate for sheriff of Barbour County. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Montgomery ruled against them, and they appealed to the 11th Circuit.

The plaintiffs argued the laws substantially burden the constitutional rights of independent candidates to participate in the political process, and the rights of voters who want to look outside the existing political parties.

The 11th Circuit said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that there is an important state interest in requiring candidates to show "a significant modicum of support" before printing their names on a ballot.

The appeals said Alabama's requirement "is a reasonable, nondiscriminatory restriction." It noted that, unlike some states, Alabama lets independent candidates and minor parties start gathering the signatures whenever they want.

The 11th Circuit said requiring the petitions to be turned in by the primary election date doesn't discriminate against independent candidates and minor parties because that deadline is 60 days after Democratic and Republican candidates have to qualify with their political parties.

The decision, written by Judge Frank Hull, said the success of several independent and minor party candidates demonstrates that Alabama's election process does not insulate the Democratic and Republican parties from competition.

Winger said the decision "ignored the favorable precedents and focused on the unfavorable precedents." He also said it overstated the success of independent candidates and third parties in gaining statewide ballot access. For instance, in the 2006 election no one was able to achieve it, he said.

The appeals court released its ruling June 29, but some of the parties did not receive it until Thursday.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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