A brief history of ballot signature challenges 1

In politics, there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that is happening has happened before and will probably happen again. Keep that in mind when you think about Indiana Democrats’ challenge of Todd Young’s U.S. Senate Primary signatures.

In 2008, I was at my desk in Indiana GOP headquarters when I saw a blog post from an activist who claimed John McCain did not file enough signatures to be a candidate for President in Indiana’s May Primary. What happened next was two weeks of signature counting and legal jockeying that left top Indiana election officials calling the whole process arcane and launched a college student’s impressive political career.

First, let’s set the stage. From state to state, there are varying requirements to get your name on the ballot. In some states, the bar is really low. In New Hampshire, for example, you just have to pay $1,000. That’s how a guy like Vermin Supreme was listed alongside Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders yesterday.

In Indiana, it’s more complicated. A statewide candidate needs to collect at least 4,500 signatures: 500 from registered voters in each of the nine Congressional Districts. Those signatures are certified at the county level, where election officials sign off that they are actually voters.

If it sounds easy, it’s not. The requirement has done many candidates in before they could even start. Four years ago, Jim Wallace tried to challenge Mike Pence for the GOP governor nomination. He claimed to collect 1,282 signatures in Marion County, but the county could only certify 486 of those signatures. He didn’t make the ballot.

Back in ’08, the challenge against McCain came a few days before signatures were due. It alleged that he was two signatures short in Indiana’s 4th District. I arrived at the Indiana Elections Division early the next morning to count the signatures myself.

Sure enough, there were a couple duplicate pages, pushing McCain’s total down to 498. With a few days left to turn in signatures, Morgan County submitted another petition that bumped McCain back over 500.

The challenge went forward anyway. The activist claimed the supplemental signatures should not be counted and also that some signatures from Tippecanoe County were not properly certified.

The Indiana Elections Commission — an appointed board consisting of two Republicans and two Democrats — heard the challenge and ultimately voted unanimously that the charge should be rejected. Senator McCain belonged on the ballot.

The commissioners at the time all weighed in stating that they prefer not to stop access in a committee of four people.

“To the extent we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of keeping somebody on the ballot,” Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (R) said. “I would rather have the people of Indiana make those decisions rather than hyper-technical reading of what the statute requires.”

The Democratic Vice-Chair, Anthony Long, agreed. “Unless the law is so abundantly clear that there’s a violation, if it’s ambiguous at all, we err on the side of letting people run.”

Democrat Commissioner Sarah Riordan concurred: “We’ve talked before about how we favor the notion of access and I think that has to apply regardless of party.”

It’s a fascinating case, and you can still read the transcript of the challenge here.

By the way, the man who filed the challenge was a college student and Indiana Democratic Party intern named Thomas Cook. You may have heard of him. He’s now Chief of Staff for Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

What does it mean for Todd Young?

First, no one knows, and if they say they know, they are wrong. That challenge is based on a few people who signed in two counties. The Young campaign said they acquired some 650 signatures in the 1st district.

They will likely look at every signature in the petition that was disqualified and convince the county or the Election Commission that they were disqualified in error. Rick Santorum successfully did that in 2012. The Commission ruled on that case unanimously in favor of Mr. Santorum, even though the Chairman was a co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign.

By the way, in these cases the burden of proof is on the challenger and a 2-2 tie vote means the candidate stays on the ballot.

Second, it’s pretty clear that Democrats don’t want to face off against Todd Young. It’s not as though Young’s disqualification would allow Baron Hill to run unopposed. Instead, they would just run against a guy in Marlin Stutzman who they feel Hill is better situated to beat.

Finally, it’s just another reminder that our ballot access laws are a little bit crazy. They serve a purpose — they keep non-serious candidates like Vermin Supreme off the ballot — but they lead to several cases like this where campaigns are fighting over a signature here and a signature there.

In the words of Tom Wheeler, the Elections Commission Chairman during the 2008 McCain challenge, “I hope you convey this to the legislature….We have an arcane method of putting these individuals on the ballot. It is one that is fraught with confusion, fraught with error, fraught with the opportunity for problems like we’ve dealt with today.”




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “A brief history of ballot signature challenges