Sen. Tom Cotton’s re-election chances are so certain that he’s already running campaign ads in other states in apparent preparation for the 2024 presidential race. The latest is an ad attacking Joe Biden appearing online in Minnesota. It ends with a photo of Cotton in combat gear and him saying in a voiceover that he approved this message.
Cotton doesn’t have a Democratic opponent because the only one who filed dropped out hours after the deadline passed. Libertarian Ricky Harrington likely will be on the ballot despite the state’s efforts to keep him off.
Last week, a judge ruled against an independent candidate, Daniel Whitfield, who filed suit saying the coronavirus pandemic had kept him from collecting the 10,000 signatures from Feb. 1 until May 1 that are required by Arkansas law. Whitfield claims he was on his way to reaching that number until the pandemic forced him and everyone else off the streets. His last event was March 12, but he still was able to collect 5,594 verified signatures – more than half what was needed. The judge agreed that he was hindered, but not severely enough.
Whitfield sounded confident he will win his court appeal when I talked to him Saturday. He’s definitely an optimist. He said he’s not only preparing his appeal but also planning his campaign.
It’s hard for anyone who’s not a Republican or Democrat to run for office, and in 2019 lawmakers made it harder. First, they increased the number of signatures that “new” parties must collect from 10,000, which is a lot, to 3 percent of the last governor’s race, or 26,746 this time. This must be done within 90 days. Signatures are required for any party that doesn’t win 3 percent of the vote in the most recent governor’s race.
Lawmakers passed this law despite a history of court rulings that should have discouraged them, and indeed Libertarians sued and won and then won again when the state appealed. The last ruling came from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals June 18.
Also in 2019, legislators permanently moved Arkansas’ presidential primaries from May to March, while keeping primaries in non-presidential election years in May. The change gives Arkansans more of a voice in the presidential nominating process, and indeed voters here were able to participate before Biden iced the Democratic Party’s nomination.
However, the change also moved the filing period for the November 2020 elections back to November 2019. For incumbents, that’s no big deal because they’re already in office anyway. But all non-major-party candidates and indeed all challengers had less time to decide to run and then gain support. As the Eighth Circuit noted, the Libertarians were required to submit their signatures approximately 425 days before the election. How much lead time does the state need to print ballots?
It is not a coincidence that the Libertarians fielded candidates in all four U.S. House races and 11 state legislative races in 2018, but this time fielded only two U.S. House candidates and four state legislative ones. One of the arguments for increasing the number of signatures was to prevent ballot overcrowding. That’s hardly a problem. One of Arkansas’ congressmen, Rep. Rick Crawford, has no opponents this year, and neither do seven of the 17 incumbent state senators up for re-election nor 51 of the 100 House incumbents, according to a list compiled by Talk Business.
The issue isn’t just whether Libertarians like Harrington and independents like Whitfield get on the ballot. It’s about the system’s efforts to keep them off. We should be wary whenever lawmakers take actions that consolidate their power and their party’s power – even when we agree with them and think they’re good people, which they generally are.
Elections aren’t just about picking winners and losers. They’re also about holding incumbents accountable – about making them discuss and defend their actions before they’re granted another term.
In other words, regardless of which party you support, it’s really better for all of us when Sen. Cotton has to campaign in Arkansas, the state he represents, rather than Minnesota.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on
Twitter at @stevebrawner.