Democracy shouldn’t limit voters’ choices

Voting inside a Fiesta grocery story in Houston on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018. Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Though our political system has largely functioned for well over 200 years, many of us wonder how — and perhaps even whether — we can escape its current dysfunctional state. 

U.S. politics is structurally predisposed for only two major parties (Duverger’s Law). Indeed, this has been the case since the republic’s inception. Up until recently, however, there was considerable overlap in the governing philosophies of elected officials from the two parties. Governing used to involve more compromise and more give-and-take. Split-ticket voting was more common. And despite two-party dominance, smaller parties and independent candidates often injected new ideas eventually adopted by the two major parties (e.g.,abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and opposition to the war in Vietnam). 

We had more trust in government when voters had more meaningful choices.

Now we watch in horror as the two major parties move further and further into their respective political corners. They seem either unable or unwilling to find the common ground where most voters reside. We should not wonder why increasing numbers of voters choose not to align with either of the major parties.

Yet the Democratic and Republican parties remain structurally entrenched by the immense financial and organizational resources necessary to run modern political campaigns, and by elections statutes enacted over the years by legislatures controlled by, yes, those same two parties. Texas’ election statutes date to 1903, and much of that original law remains in place, hobbling competitors while providing, among other things, automatic ballot access for the self-serving major parties through taxpayer-funded primary elections.

What is to be done? What can we do to make sure that challengers to two-party rule at least have a fighting chance? 

Let’s start by preventing the two ruling parties from telling us who we can vote for. Let’s eliminate the restrictive roadblocks in Texas’ election statutes that hinder alternative candidates from providing more voter choice. These roadblocks are unnecessarily burdensome, prohibitively expensive, and — I believe — unconstitutional. 

For example, to get on the 2020 ballot, a minor party or independent candidate for statewide office or president must collect more than 80,000 valid signatures — with prohibitive restrictions on who may sign, and in an unnecessarily short time period after the primary elections. History shows this can’t be done without using paid petition circulators, who currently charge around $7.50 per signature. This means a total cost in excess of $600,000 — and significantly more when accounting for the need to collect perhaps double the required minimum as a precaution. 

Texas’ statutory restrictions effectively exclude qualified candidates who lack the resources necessary to comply with these obsolete procedures. Voters are harmed when they are denied the right to cast votes for candidates of their choosing.

As might be expected, the Texas Legislature has again failed us. A bill that would have made long-overdue comprehensive repairs to Texas’ statutes (House Bill 4439) never got a hearing from the House Elections Committee. Another bill (HB 2504) erected an additional barrier to minor-party candidates by imposing an unnecessary filing fee or nomination petition, in addition to the near-impossible signature requirements for their party to gain ballot access. 

That’s why I am a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Austin earlier this month by several voters and minor parties. We’re challenging the constitutionality of this statutory scheme, which systematically denies us the right to cast our votes for candidates who represent our views, while using tax dollars to guarantee ballot access to the two ruling parties. Our goal is to restore voters’ freedom of choice, so that the electoral process once again embraces the views of all Texans — not just the insiders who pass our laws and write the rules. 

We Texans are aware of the vitality and prosperity that comes from vibrant competition. We cherish our mavericks and wildcatters, and our competitive business environment. We should bring that same vitality and prosperity to our politics, by making our ballots just as competitive.

Texas consistently ranks at the bottom of states in terms of voter participation. What better way to engage voters than through increased choice, increased debate and increased competition among those who seek to represent us?

Mark Miller

Texans for Voter Choice