There may be no more formidable political task in Maryland than to make a bid for public office as an independent or third-party candidate. Just ask Arthur Reynolds, a Howard County lawyer, or Catherine Wilson, a Harford County civic activist.
Both spent months hammering on the doors of strangers, bugging neighbors and corralling parents at Little League games to sign petitions allowing them to seek office this year. If they'd registered as Democrats or Republicans, they wouldn't have needed to bother with the chore.
"Maryland's ballot laws are about as undemocratic as you get in this country," said Mr. Reynolds, 44, running for a seat in the state House of Delegates.
Mrs. Wilson, 58, running for a House seat against a longtime Democrat incumbent, added: "True democracy isn't served by limiting who can run."
Mr. Reynolds and Mrs. Wilson are among just five candidates outside the Democratic and Republican parties seeking state offices in Maryland this year.
All the independent candidates are seeking seats in the House of Delegates, where no third-party members or independents hold office -- and haven't for at least 50 years, according to ballot historians. House seats currently are held by 116 Democrats and 25 Republicans.
"Maryland's ballot laws are very frustrating to anyone who wants to run outside the two major parties," said Richard Winger, who publishes Ballot Access News, a San Francisco-based newsletter.
Mr. Winger said Maryland ranks with Florida and Georgia as having the most restrictive ballot laws in the United States. Both of those states are moving toward reforms.
"If you think about it, it's just as much a voter issue as it is a ballot access issue," Mr. Winger said. "By making it hard for candidates outside Democrats and Republicans to get on the ballot, the legislature limits voters' choices."
Independent and third-party candidates running this year in Maryland say their first task, if elected, would be championing legislation to reform the state's ballot laws.
Mr. Reynolds, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the House of Delegates in 1990, said seeking office would have been easier if he had simply stayed registered with the GOP.
State law requires that, to get on the ballot, he had to collect signatures on a petition from 3 percent of the registered voters in his district, 13A. That meant he needed to gather a minimum of 1,200 signatures of registered voters in his district.
Montgomery County Libertarian candidate Scott Becker, a podiatrist, had to drum up a minimum of 1,750 signatures in his district. "You have no idea how much work and time it takes," he said.
What kept him and the others going was the absence of much resistance from voters. "People are unaware of what the ballot laws say," he said. "Most of the people I talked to were outraged when they heard what an independent or third-party candidate had to do to get on the ballot."
In stark contrast, Republicans and Democrats don't need any petition signatures to run for office. State law just requires that GOP and Democratic candidates file a declaration of candidacy for the primary election and pay a $50 filing fee.
Even a few members of the General Assembly agree ballot reform is needed. "The system is antiquated and out of touch with reality. The petition requirements are outlandish," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County.
During the last two legislative sessions, he's proposed legislation to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to get on the ballot. His bills were killed. "The attitude among legislators unfortunately seems to be 'Why make it easier for anyone else to get my job?' " he said.
Senator Pinsky believes third-party and independent candidates should have greater access to the ballot because their mix of views would strengthen the political process.
"A more open ballot, I think, would encourage more people to vote, and parties to be much more representative of their true interests and ideologies," he said.
But supporters of the existing system say it prevents insincere candidates from clogging the slates. "The system insures a thoughtful process with order," said Del. Gerald J. Curran, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.
The restrictions in Maryland's ballot go beyond requiring signatures on petitions. They include:
* Barring registered independent voters from voting in primaries.
* Only allowing third-party members to vote in primaries if their parties are on the ballot.
* Allowing Democratic and Republican central committees to appoint candidates to run after the primary filing deadline if no one from their parties has registered for the race. No other parties have that option.