Analysis: Nader’s ballot access message may prove persuasive

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 12-Sep-2010

Ralph Nader, four-time presidential candidate, came to Oklahoma City last week to deliver a passionate speech assailing Oklahoma’s restrictive ballot access laws.

Nader told an enthusiastic crowd that candidates for independent parties  “have to climb the equivalent of Mount Everest to get on the ballot” in Oklahoma. He flatly said Oklahoma was “the worst in the country to get on the ballot.”

With time, the message he brought may prove persuasive, even with the Democrats and Republicans who run the Legislature he denounced vigorously in his speech.

Nader took the opportunity to give a boost, as well, to an independent candidate for the Oklahoma state Legislature. That message may be less persuasive in this election cycle – but the next few weeks will tell the story.

Introducing Dr. Edward Shadid, the legislative candidate, and Nader, Shadid supporter David Glover said the state’s ballot access system is depriving Oklahomans of meaningful choices. He criticized what he characterized as corporate dominance of both major parties, elected Democrats he said are moving “further and further to the right,” and legislative gerrymanders that mean “primaries are increasingly deciding the general election.”

In his remarks, Shadid made an explicit appeal for support in his legislative campaign.

In a video introducing Nader, the broad sweep of his consumer activism and impact on recent presidential elections, especially in 2000, was surveyed.

Theresa Amato, a Nader aide and author of a study of ballot access issues, noted in the film that every “third party” presidential candidate in Florida in 2000 gained more votes than the narrow difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Still, Nader is often blamed by Democrats for depriving Gore of enough votes to carry Florida, and thus to win the presidency.

Nader both informed and entertained the crowd, touching on themes in his novel, “Only the Supre-Rich Can Save Us!,” in which a southwest Oklahoma independent candidate with the support of a dozen billionaires unseats an entrenched member of Congress, transforming American politics in the process. A relative of Dr. Shadid’s, an early-day coop medical care pioneer in western Oklahoma, is a character in Nader’s novel.

While evoking generally liberal or progressive themes – including on matters of health care, a living wage, “clean elections,” small business, trade agreements and other issues – in his speech Nader also decried corporate communication systems that market “pornography and violence directly to kids.”

He praised attendees at the September 8 evening event for “showing up in the midst of this tumultuous rain.” He affirmed, “half of democracy is simply showing up.” He repeatedly exhorted the crowd to believe their views can make a difference: “The truth is the people have the power.”

Nader offered a vision of a system in which Americans do not have to settle for “the least worst” choice between the major party candidates. With a humorous touch, Nader observed Oklahoma is known for passionate devotion to sports, especially football. He said, “If Americans were as serious voters as they are sports fans, we’d have a raging democracy.”

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK at a press conference before the general session, Nader said he supports former U.S. Mike Gravel’s proposal for a national ballot initiative system.

In that same session with reporters, as remnants of a hurricane drenched the city area outside the briefing room, Nader said  he believes America is afflicted because “there’s too much that’s not discussable, that’s forbidden” in the marketplace of ideas.

In his subsequent speech, while acknowledging the presence of many who might not share Shadid’s “green” philosophy, Nader encouraged attendees from within the district to “find 10 friends or relatives and get them to the polls in this election” in support of Shadid.

Promotional booths and information were offered by several groups which passionately support Nader’s message on ballot access, even if they disagree on many policy questions.

Despite that howling rainstorm,  approximately 500 people packed the meeting room at the Marriott on Northwest Highway in Oklahoma City. While Nader’s comments on ballot access were obviously what bound the diverse crowd, Dr. Shadid was hopeful some benefits might flow his way as the sponsor of the evening. Shadid is challenging Republican incumbent state Rep. David Dank in House District 85. Gail Vines, a member of the Oklahoma City public school board, is the Democratic nominee.

Dank is part of a band of legislators in both parties who have worked to reduce the impact of political action committees (PACs) and lobbyists at the state Capitol.

Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform, an advocacy group encompassing divergent philosophies, including member of both major parties,  the state Libertarian Party, and the “Pirate Party” – that’s really the group’s name  — distributed information at the Nader event. Libertarians stood alongside “Pirates” and “Greens” to cheer Nader’s message on reform of the Sooner State’s ballot access laws.

While Dr. Shadid is running as an independent, he has made it clear he considers himself the candidate of the Green Party of Oklahoma. Two of Nader’s runs for the presidency were made on the Green ticket. “The Greens” of Oklahoma feature Shadid on their home page. Members of the environmentalist-oriented party from all over the state are assisting his drive. 

Groups outside Oklahoma strongly endorsed Nader’s ballot access theme. Christina Tobin, Libertarian Party candidate for California secretary of state, is the founder and chair of The Free and Equal Elections Foundation. Tobin observed, “Oklahoma presidential ballot access laws are among the strictest in the country.” In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, she commented, “Oklahoma even forbids write-in votes. When I heard Oklahoma was a red state, I didn’t think it referred to the Soviet Union.”

Richard Winger, a national analyst of ballot access laws, says, “Oklahoma ballot access for president is so bad, no Oklahoma voter has been permitted to vote for anyone for President in the last 9 years except for the nominees of the two major parties.” Winger, publisher of  Ballot Access News, commented, “Oklahoma is the only state in which no one has ever been allowed to vote for Nader.”

“Oklahoma ballot access laws relating to independent presidential candidates are supremely irrational, because independent candidates for office other than president are very easy in Oklahoma, and the state has no problem with crowded general election ballots for any partisan office,” Winger said. “Independent candidates don’t need any signatures at all, unless they are running for President, in which case they need 43,880 valid signatures (for 2012).”

Tobin said, “This event and others like it provide a forum for like-minded voters to come together in a unified front to challenge the political status quo, which has long left many sooner state residents without the representation they desire and deserve. Free & Equal encourages Oklahoma to join the majority of states, which have adopted revenue-positive filing fees in lieu of revenue-negative signature requirements.”

Free and Equal’s P.R. director Kaylee Burton said, “Voter choice is long overdue in Oklahoma. I grew up here … went to college here … and I’ll never forget the first time I heard about ballot access laws. It was like a slap upside the head to realize I had been conditioned to think Oklahoma elections were fair, only to find out that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s absurd the level of control Democrats and Republicans hold in this state and now that I’ve learned the truth, I want to help others to pull the wool back from their eyes.”

Free & Equal is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public-policy advocacy organization which describes itself as “dedicated to protecting the rights of the politically marginalized and disenfranchised, particularly those of third party and Independent candidates.”

Nader, born in 1934, became famous worldwide after publication of books and articles advocating automobile safety. As a result of his work in the 1960s and 1970s, he is considered the father of many modern U.S. consumer protection laws. Many of his efforts were institutionalized in laws and regulations over the past four decades.

In the last two decades, Nader has run twice (1996 and 2000) as the Green Party candidate for president, and twice as an independent (2004 and 2008).

In promoting the event, Shadid distributed information declaring Oklahomans “are growing increasingly uneasy about the Republican/Democratic Party duopoly, which acts to commercialize elections, gerrymander districts to repress competition, and preclude third party candidates from ballot access.” In comments he repeated at the Nader event, Shadid decried the fact that 53 of this year’s 125 legislative “races” are not elections at all, as incumbents or new legislators gained election without competition.
Shadid noted that Nader has written about a lack of political competition since 1958, when an essay he penned appeared in the Harvard Law Review. 

In April 2010, a Sooner Poll found 66.2% of Oklahomans said “yes” in response to the question: “Do you think it should be easier for political parties other than Democrat or Republican to get on the ballot in Oklahoma?” 

This week, the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, expressed editorial sympathy for the ballot access themes Nader raised. The cause has many covert, and a few overt, sympathizers in the Legislature.
In time, the state will likely go “back to the future,” and restore at least one aspect of the state’s populist-progressive tradition, allowing third candidates for the presidency and other contests a better chance at gaining the support of Oklahoma voters.