Detergent for political dirty tricks

Competition, economists say, eventually brings the greatest benefits to consumers. Republican and Democratic functionaries, though, don’t want free-market rivalries extended to politics, even if voters end up with a greater range of choices and representation.

Judging by the battles independent candidate Ralph Nader and the Libertarian and Green parties are fighting to get on the presidential ballot in various states, the major political parties want no more than two competitors on their playing fields — unless an exception improves their chances of victory.

“Both the Democratic and Republican party operatives are playing games with ballot access in Oregon,” political analyst Jim Moore of Pacific University said this week. Groups such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, allied with President Bush’s re-election campaign, worked to get their members out to support getting Nader on the ballot.

Democrats countered by sabotaging Nader backers’ efforts to get him on the ballot via 1,000 people in a convention signing a petition. A Democratic Party official’s e-mail read: “We need as many Oregon Democrats as possible to fill that room and to NOT sign that petition.” State election officials, he argued, would have to close the doors once 1,000 voters were in the room. “If we attend in large numbers and politely refuse to sign, Nader is denied his needed numbers.” The result: only 950 valid signatures, 50 too few.

Tawdry tactics make it inviting to consider reforms. One would be to lower, greatly, the current number of signatures needed for parties (18,000) and candidates (15,000) to get on the ballot. There is no instance in which a 5,000-signature standard has put more than eight candidates on the ballot, says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 said (Williams v. Rhodes) that eight candidates should not be so many as to cause voter confusion.

Another possible reform, instant runoffs, could largely solve the problem of no candidate’s gaining a majority owing to the large number of contenders on the ballot. Instant runoffs come in various flavors, but the basic idea is that voters put a “1” next to their first choice, a “2” next to a second selection and so on until the voter doesn’t want to designate anyone else as a fallback pick.

When no one gets a majority, election officials look again at ballots of the candidate who came in last and reassign those voters’ No. 2 choices to those candidates. This continues until the issue is settled. San Francisco voters will begin using instant runoffs in November for city races.

Other reforms, full representation and cumulative voting, give independent and minority interests a chance to have a voice in bodies that now are dominated by winner-take-all practices.

The Center for Voting and Democracy discusses these and other reforms at its Web site ( As the major parties resort to dirty tricks, the reform ideas make for provocative reading.

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