Limiting Access to the Political Order in North Carolina

Imagine the following: someone who opposes government policies wishes to run for office, and he and his party overcome the hurdles necessary to get on the ballot. The candidate is invited to a debate, but then that debate is cancelled and a new debate is scheduled. The opposition candidate is not invited to this debate, though. He distributes and displays campaign material in public places, but government highway workers remove these materials on the grounds that there is no election occurring at the time. Local election officials do not respond to the opposition party’s requests for registration forms and refuse to accept the party’s fees required to put the candidates on the ballot. Members of the party are required to re-register their affiliation, while members of the majority parties are only required to register their affiliation once. The government will not allow the party to hold a primary election.

This is actually happening right now. But where? Is it in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? The People’s Republic of China? Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela?

None of the three. It’s happening in North Carolina. The candidate, Duke University Political Science Professor Michael Munger, was nominated by the North Carolina Libertarian Party to run for governor, and he has been excluded from the debates in spite of the fact that he and the Party have done everything election officials have requested to run a sanctioned campaign. In the interests of full disclosure, Dr. Munger and I contribute to the same weblog at www.divisionoflabour.com, but my opinion would be the same regardless of the candidate or the party. One might claim that ballot access restrictions are necessary because we don’t want too many people on the ballot or because we don’t want to let “just anyone” on the ballot, but this is a separate issue. One has to ask whether as a matter of fairness the state is obligated to treat equally all candidates who clear the hurdles necessary for formal recognition and ballot access.

According to Munger’s campaign weblog, the state of North Carolina had yet to produce the forms that voters could use to register as Libertarians as of June 29. In 2005, the state had 13,000 voters registered as Libertarians. Between then and now, the state of North Carolina stripped them of their registration in what appears to be a willful attempt to de-legitimize the party and its candidates. It is difficult to compete with established interests when one essentially has to start over every election cycle.

I can’t help but wonder if this suggests that cynical, uncharitable views of the political system are correct. Private organizations (like the North Carolina Bar Association, which refused to invite Munger to their debate) must fear political retribution from the powers-that-be. History is filled with examples of political actors using their authority and power to exact favors and concessions from others.

As private organizations, the groups that sponsor the gubernatorial debates are entitled to invite whoever they want, and Dr. Munger has recognized this in a recent internet post. However, these organizations do their members and other voters a disservice by narrowing the field to just two candidates. Just as one must ask whether he deserves equal treatment from the state, one also has to ask whether as a matter of intellectual honesty organizations that sponsor debates should include all candidates who have cleared the hurdles necessary to get on the ballot. This was the eighth time that the Libertarian Party of North Carolina would be running an official candidate for Governor. It should have come as no surprise to state election officials or debate organizers that a party with a thirty-year history of running candidates in gubernatorial elections would again run a candidate in 2008.

In a forthcoming book, 1993 Nobel Laureate Douglass C. North, Stanford University political scientist Barry Weingast, and University of Maryland economist John J. Wallis argue for the importance of open-access political orders in sustaining peace and prosperity over the long run. The cost of arbitrary barriers to access can be severe in that they undermine the perceived legitimacy of the political system. That could be the ultimate (and unfortunate) consequence of what is going on in North Carolina.

What is happening in North Carolina is a travesty, but I don’t intend to single out the Tar Heel State. This occurs in election after election when opposition parties try to gain a foothold in the American political system. Rhetoric about “free and fair” elections rings hollow when legitimate candidates are excluded from the political process for arbitrary reasons. This is not only unfair to the candidates. It is a disservice to voters that undermines the very system we hold up for the world to emulate. If we cannot have open debates and elections in our own country, can we expect it in others?

Art Carden is Assistant Professor of Economics and Business, Rhodes College, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Independent Institute.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College.
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