- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia’s requirement that political organizations seeking to put a presidential candidate’s name on a statewide ballot have to get signatures from 1 percent of registered voters is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Richard Story on Thursday ruled in favor of the Green Party of Georgia and the Constitution Party of Georgia, which in May 2012 had sued Secretary of State Brian Kemp. His office oversees elections in the state. The organizations argued the signature requirement exceeded constitutional standards and infringed upon their right to participate in the electoral process.

To be considered a political party under Georgia law, a political organization’s candidate must have received 20 percent of the vote in the preceding gubernatorial or presidential election. A candidate nominated in a primary conducted by a recognized political party can appear on a Georgia ballot.

Independent candidates and those that represent other political organizations can appear on the ballot if they submit a nomination petition signed by a certain percentage of the registered voters eligible to vote in the last election. For a presidential candidate, state law sets that bar at 1 percent.

That means that in 2012 when the lawsuit was filed a presidential candidate seeking access to the Georgia ballot had to get 50,334 signatures.

The 1 percent signature requirement is “unconstitutional as applied to presidential candidates and cannot stand,” Story wrote. He permanently barred Kemp from enforcing that provision against presidential candidates.

Because this is also an election year, Story wrote that he felt “compelled to assure that a procedure is in place to protect the very rights that this order seeks to secure: specifically, the rights of Georgia voters to fully participate in presidential elections by having a meaningful opportunity to vote for candidates other than those nominated by the two major political parties.”

A presidential candidate must submit 7,500 signatures on a petition that otherwise complies with state law to be put on the ballot, Story wrote, adding that this would stand until the state Legislature enacts a permanent measure.

Kemp said in an emailed statement that he is discussing his legal options with the state attorney general’s office.

“Practically speaking, I do not foresee any issues implementing Judge Story’s ruling this election cycle,” he said. “This order only affects presidential candidates. It does not affect other candidates seeking public office this year.”

Georgia Green Party Co-Chair Bruce Dixon said the ruling is a modest step in the right direction.

“In the future we hope to force that door open further, and to extend this right to Georgia voters electing members of Congress, the legislature, and constitutional and county offices,” he said in a statement on the organization’s website.

“Judge Story’s ruling is a first step toward leveling the playing field so that Georgians can select the candidate of their choice,” Georgia Constitution Party Chairman Ricardo Davis said by telephone.

Story had initially dismissed the lawsuit about two months after it was filed in 2012. The two political organizations appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said in January 2014 that Story was wrong to dismiss the lawsuit and sent it back to him.

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