There are certain ideas that keep America going. Ideas like every kid can grow up to be President, all you need is hard work and a dream, and America is basically fair to everyone.
It’s this last idea that I’d like to talk about.
I am a member of a third party, the Libertarian Party of Florida (LPF). It always seemed odd to me that 318 million Americans all have different opinions, but when it comes time to vote, everyone falls into line behind one of two the major parties. What gives?
Part of the reason, no doubt, is our winner take all voting system. If you get 50.1% of the vote, your guy wins. This makes people vote for the lesser of two evils instead of what they want because they are afraid the “other guy” will get into office. Of course, with time, things get worse and no one understands why.
The rest is more subtle. A recent case with the LPF is a good example. The LPF had a $70,000 fine levied against it after the 2012 elections for allegedly not filing $1700 in campaign donations with the State. It took six months for the case to come to a hearing, and all the while we sweated how $70,000 could break us. For six months it was tough committing to plans or instilling confidence when Florida held a hammer over our heads. In the end, the LPF was completely exonerated. We filed correctly after all. The State said “sorry,” but in the meantime, the system pretty much kept us in limbo.
It goes further. Most people think campaign contribution limits control big money and spur political competition. On the contrary, they limit competition. I was manager of a Congressional campaign where our opponent spent $450,000 to keep his seat. We raised $15,000, but the law limits state parties to a total donation of $5000, and individuals to $2500 for such races. This inherently favors big parties that already have long lists of donors, and financially limits new party networks. If the big parties today had nothing but a dream and hard work, they couldn’t organize political opposition with the laws as they are now. The advantage lies with the major parties, and not those trying to build new ones.
How about ballot access? In Florida a candidate needs simply 1% of the district voting population to sign a petition, or about 130,000 petitions to run for Governor. In my campaign it took six months of continuous hard work to get around 3000 valid petitions, and we had 33 volunteers. Our Republican opponent tried to get petitions and failed, so he simply paid the ballot access fee of about $10,000. Officially counting petitions also costs 10 cents apiece or $13,000 for Governor, assuming they are all correct.
Even local parties have hurdles. One thing that I keep an eye on in our local affiliate is not to be liable to Federal Election Commission reporting. Such reporting easily requires professional filing assistance, and it begins with just $1000 in federally reportable expenses. If there is a problem, the local party has to plead its case (lawyer anyone?) before the FEC. In addition, once you report, you are always liable to report until they say you can stop. No kidding. Try getting neighbors together when they realize they may have to be accountable for years. Of course, local parties must also report to the state or be criminally liable.
On top of all this, Republican and Democrat party officials get to be on the ballot every four years, but not “minor” parties. Candidates for Governor can get government matching funds (something Libertarians are against), but you have to raise $150,000 in donations first, and the two major parties even removed the ability of minor parties to control who can run under the minor party name, so anyone with a checkbook big enough to pay the ballot fee can take the Libertarian name regardless of party support. Everything favors the established parties while appearing to be equal and above board.
Basically fair? No. It just looks that way, which is just fine with the Republicans and Democrats.
Pete Blome is a retired military officer and an At-Large Representative for the Libertarian Party of Florida