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Third-party ballot fight

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Electoral politics isn't just about what's on the ballot -- what isn't there is just as political.

Consider the Green Party, whose representatives and lawyers say that it's unconstitutional to bar them from local elections unless they qualify first for statewide elections. That rule limits all smaller parties, they argue.

"There is an animosity among people who hold office to allowing third parties on the ballot," leaving officeholders with "a monopoly on the power," says Ronald Reosti, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing Green Party candidates Jim Nicita and Peter Schermerhorn, who didn't make it onto the ballot in Washtenaw County.

"Politicians may talk about wanting voters to have a choice, but state after state has put up barriers to putting third (-party) candidates on the ballot. And one of the easiest ways is to keep them from running locally."

To appear on the ballot, state law requires that parties gather enough state residents' signatures to equal 1 percent of the votes cast in Michigan's last gubernatorial election, including at least 100 signatures each from half of Michigan's congressional districts. This year, the parties needed 30,891; the Green party was able to collect approximately 6,000 signatures statewide, with approximately 2,700 of those signatures coming from Washtenaw County.

Last month, Washtenaw Circuit Judge Kurtis T. Wilder denied a preliminary injunction that would have added Nicita and Schermerhorn to the ballots under their party banner. Schermerhorn planned to run in the county commission race that is now between District 12 Democratic incumbent Leah Gunn and Republican Ken Dignan. Nicita planned to run for Ann Arbor City Council, where he would have been the only opponent of incumbent Democrat Tobi Hanna-Davies in Ward 1.

"Because of this, the voters essentially had no political choice," Nicita says.

The Green Party, known for its grassroots populism and environmentalism, will continue pressing in Circuit Court to have the state law ruled unconstitutional with an eye toward future elections, Nicita says. But he says if the Green Party wins, the city and county will likely appeal the decision.

Next month, voters will be able to choose candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Reform, Libertarian and Natural Law parties. The Libertarian Party automatically qualified to be on the ballot this year because their principal candidate in the 1996 general election received 1 percent or more of the total number of votes cast for the successful candidate for secretary of state. The Natural Law party made it onto the ballot by collecting enough signatures on a petition.

The Reform Party is considered a major party this year, alongside Democrats and Republicans, because the 336, 670 votes cast for their 1996 presidential candidate, Ross Perot, exceeded the necessary 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for the secretary of state. Only major parties can take part in statewide primaries.

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