The hardest battles in Washington tend not to be fought over great issues, such as war and peace. The most bitter struggles are over exercising power, and especially getting reelected. That's why it took so long for Congress to pass campaign finance "reform," and why this "reform" protected incumbent politicians by limiting critical ads before elections.
The same game is routinely played in states across America. For instance, legislatures never redistrict to improve popular representation and strengthen communities. Legislatures always use the process to tighten the majority political party's hold over power.
However, Republicans and Democrats lock arms against everyone else. Republicans and Democrats are dedicated to preserving the two-party control and avoiding a competition of ideas.
I learned just how desperately the Republicans and Democrats want to avoid competition since becoming the Libertarian Party candidate for president.
Senators Barack Obama and John McCain can hold their conventions and jump right into campaigning. In contrast, my first task after winning the Libertarian Party nomination in May was to work to win ballot access across America. Although the Libertarian Party had begun that process, many states require the nominee's name before you can begin the process -- something not necessary for the Republicans and Democrats, since they enjoy permanent ballot status.
Some states treat access to the ballot as a public trust and set reasonable requirements for winning access. In this way, they maximize the opportunity for their citizens to hear different perspectives.
It isn't as easy in a number of other states, but still, dedicated volunteers and supporters are able to fulfill the rules. As a result, so far we have qualified for the ballot in 42 states and we are on track for at least 47, and possibly 49.
But a few states treat ballot access as yet another tool for the two big parties to strengthen their hold on power. Deadlines, petition requirements, limits on signature collection and other rules are used to block anyone seeking to challenge the Republican-Democratic status quo.
Oklahoma may be the worst state in the nation. The current Democratic state attorney general has engaged in selective enforcement of election laws and went so far as to indict political activists on criminal charges for seeking to place a tax and spending initiative on the state ballot. Qualifying a candidate or party for the ballot is no easier. Who benefits? Certainly not the citizens of Oklahoma.
West Virginia is almost as bad. We got a late start in West Virginia and challenged their arbitrary early deadlines; deadlines for third-parties that fall a full month ahead of the deadlines for Republicans and the Democrats. The court's response was, 'tough luck, you should have started sooner.'
In Maine, the secretary of state instructed town clerks not to accept our petitions during the traditional grace period. There's no logical explanation other than hoping to save the Republicans and Democrats from the inconvenience of having to compete with someone else.
In Pennsylvania we fulfilled all of the state requirements, but now a Republican operative and supporter of Sen. John McCain is suing to keep us off of the ballot. It's an odd step to take for the representative of someone allegedly dedicated to political reform. And it's hypocritical for John McCain to allow this to happen after he said in 2000 that he would never allow his agents to keep someone off the ballot. Apparently the McCain campaign is worried that they can't appeal to voters if Pennsylvanians have more options on the ballot.
Yet, a very different standard is evident when the Republicans and Democrats run into trouble. The Texas legislature moved the deadline for qualifying for their state's ballot to 70 days before the election--before either the Republicans or Democrats had nominated their candidates. Both parties missed the deadline.
But rather than enforce the law, the Texas secretary of state announced that both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain will be on the ballot. If the state of Texas moves ahead to disregard the law, my campaign will file suit.
Floyd Norris of the New York Times complains that the economy may suffer from political uncertainty as a result. Actually, the economy will be just fine. We would welcome the political competition (as should the New York Times), but we have a larger point to make. If election laws should be enforced, they should be enforced against all parties, and not only those seeking to challenge the Republicans and Democrats.
There are great issues that divide Americans. We should, however, be able to agree on the importance of preserving an open political system that welcomes alternative viewpoints. Such a policy is especially important today, when Americans are frustrated with the status quo and desperate for change. The Republican and Democratic parties should have to compete for votes that they now take for granted.
Bob Barr is the Libertarian Party presidential nominee, and represented the 7th District of Georgia in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003.
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