When Dr. Michael Pakko testified against a bill making it harder for third parties to compete Tuesday, he didn't use the four words that would have been the most persuasive to lawmakers.
Pakko, the Libertarian Party of Arkansas chairman, spoke against Senate Bill 163 by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado. Garner’s bill would increase the number of signatures third parties must collect to qualify for the ballot. It’s currently 10,000. Garner’s bill would increase it to 3 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. In 2020, that would be about 26,746.
Under current law, any political party not attaining 3 percent of the vote in a presidential or gubernatorial election is a “new” party and must collect signatures the next time. Pakko’s Libertarians have been inching toward that percentage in recent elections. Last November, their candidate for governor, Mark West, won 2.9 percent of the vote.
On Tuesday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee met earlier than expected and dispensed with the bill on a voice vote before Pakko arrived.
Given a chance to speak at the meeting’s end, Pakko called it a “clear effort to suppress competition in Arkansas’ political process.” He pointed out that more than half the state legislative candidates in 2018 were unopposed, so it’s not like Arkansans have too many ballot choices.
“The fact that it includes an emergency clause makes it even more evident that it’s intended to stifle competition in the 2020 election to the benefit of current incumbent politicians and their entrenched political parties,” he said.
It also runs afoul of a 2006 case, Green Party of Arkansas v. Daniels. There, a judge ruled that a previous 3 percent limit was unconstitutional and required the state to give the Green Party a spot on the ballot. In fact, that ruling led the Legislature to adopt the 10,000-signature threshold, Pakko said.
And that’s when he didn’t use the four words that would be most effective with lawmakers as the bill moves through the House: “And we will sue.”
Legislators not persuaded by arguments about fairness and democracy might hit the pause button if shown the state will lose a court case.
On Wednesday, the day after the committee meeting, the full Senate voted 27-7 for the bill. All of the Republicans voted for it, and all the Democrats except two voted against it.
Libertarians support as little government as possible, so their candidates arguably take a few votes from Republicans. However, they are hardly a threat in this Republicanized state. Besides, their positions on some issues are quire liberal, so they might take votes from Democrats, too.
Interestingly, while one advancing bill would make it harder for third parties to compete, another would make it easier for independent candidates to run for office.
On Monday, the full House voted 96-0 to move to May 1 the deadline for independent candidates to submit their signatures. House Bill 1152’s sponsor is Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith.
Under current state law, candidates must submit their signatures during the party filing period in early March. But a judge ruled that law unconstitutional last year after independent Mark Moore sued the state. Moore said the law unfairly forced independents to collect signatures early and in the dead of winter.
Notice that ruling last year was more recent than the Green Party’s suit in 2006. The Legislature sometimes has a very short memory.
Probably Pakko couldn’t have done anything to stop Garner’s bill in the Senate. Bills sometimes pass easily in the originating chamber because senators and representatives don’t want to offend their seatmates. Then they often stall in committee in the other chamber.
Garner’s bill now goes to the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Libertarians and what few Green Party members remain should show up in force. And Pakko should practice saying “And we will sue” until it sounds as ominous as possible.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.