WASHINGTON -- As polls continue to reflect widespread public apathy if not disgust toward the two major political parties and interest in an alternative, long-shot efforts are going forward to crack the door open for independent and third-party candidates in the next presidential election.
Leading the effort is Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who was the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee in 1988 and was elected to the House as a Republican in 1996. He is sponsoring bills that would make it easier for such candidates to gain ballot position in the various states and to gain admission to presidential debates. They had hearings before the House Oversight Committee last week, and while they caused hardly a ripple, they served notice that third-party advocates are persevering in their uphill fight.
The first bill would require states to establish "fair, uniform and nondiscriminatory standards" for all candidates to get on their ballots. In 1996, the Libertarian Party managed to achieve ballot position in all 50 states for its nominee, Harry Browne, but the effort was extremely costly and time-consuming. Ross Perot's Reform Party also qualified in all 50 states, and two other minor parties, the U.S. Taxpayers Party and the Natural Law Party, ZTC earned ballot position in about 40.
Helping the rejected
Mr. Paul's second bill addresses the rejection of Mr. Perot and Mr. Brown in 1996 by the Commission on Presidential Debates, headed by former Republican and Democratic national chairmen, to compete with Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole in their three debates.
It would bar presidential candidates who accept federal matching funds (Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole in 1996) from taking part in debates that exclude other candidates who have qualified for the ballot in at least 40 states.
Mr. Browne, who wound up winning nearly 486,000 votes, never got serious consideration for the debates.
The commission debated the merits of admitting Mr. Perot, who participated in the 1992 presidential debates, but he was rejected under new commission guidelines that stipulated that a candidate had to have "a realistic chance" to be elected. Mr. Perot's supporters complained about the use of such a subjective criterion, but in vain.
The commission's decision caused an uproar not only in the Perot camp but among advocates of some alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. The Reform Party went to court charging that federal election laws were rigged against third parties and were unconstitutional, but a federal district judge recently dismissed the case.
In testimony before the House committee, Ron Crickenberger, national director of the Libertarian Party, charged that "political discrimination is the civil rights battle of the '90s."
While state election laws require only 25,000 to 50,000 signatures from Republicans and Democrats to obtain ballot position, he said, "the law requires third-party candidates to gather approximately 700,000 signatures."
He called the requirement "a poll tax on those with differing political affiliations."
Of Mr. Paul's proposal on debates, Mr. Crickenberger said it "simply recognizes that candidates who take money from taxpayers [under the federal subsidy that matches private contributions] have a special responsibility to debate people who are expressing the same wide variety of ideas that Americans hold."
In 1996, third-party candidates received about 9 million votes, 7.8 million of them going to Mr. Perot.
The stock argument against admitting third-party candidates to the presidential debates is that they clutter them up, and impair the voters' ability to hear and make judgments about the major-party nominees. It is an argument that won out in 1996, and is likely to prevail again in 2000, unless a third-party candidate demonstrates the strength in the polls that Mr. Perot mustered in 1992, when he won 19 percent of the vote.
A third choice
Still, if voters are as unhappy with the choices the two major parties give them as the polls indicate, the fight of the third-party forces may not be forever in vain.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 3/11/98