Friday, November 30, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland’s ballot-access law imposes harsh restrictions on new parties, measures devised to protect Democrats and Republicans from competition, a lawyer for the Green Party told the state’s highest court yesterday.

The law should be overturned because it places an unconstitutional burden on third parties, making it too difficult for them to get their candidates on the ballot, Frank Dunbaugh said.

While the Green Party is recognized as an official party in Maryland, it still must collect signatures of registered voters for any race in which it wants to field a candidate, including about 30,000 signatures for statewide offices.

“This is a tremendous burden. Nobody has ever met that burden,” Mr. Dunbaugh told the seven Court of Appeals judges.

Republicans and Democrats do not have to conduct petition drives to get on the ballot for party primary elections.

Lawyers for the state defended the law as a reasonable restriction that helps avoid cluttered ballots that can confuse voters.

Michael Berman, an assistant attorney general, said once the Greens collected 10,000 signatures to qualify as a party in Maryland, they earned the right to be listed on registration forms given to new voters.

“That is not an insubstantial benefit,” Mr. Berman said.

Mr. Dunbaugh said most people won’t register as a member of an alternative party if they know their candidates can’t get on the ballot.

Mr. Berman argued that the requirement that potential candidates collect signatures of 1 percent of active registered voters either statewide or in their legislative districts is valid under the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.

“The test here is does the statute meet the minimum constitutional standard. We will submit it does,” Mr. Berman said.

Judges engaged in a lively debate over the issue, with most of the questions directed at Mr. Berman and appearing to favor the Green Party position.

However, judges sometimes play devil’s advocate during questioning, and such comments do not necessarily indicate which way the court will decide.

Isaac Opalinsky, co-chairman of the Maryland Green Party, said he was encouraged and believed the court will send the case back to Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, which had dismissed the lawsuit filed against state election officials.

“Maryland ballot laws have a history of preventing ballot access,” and the party would have a chance to prove that if the case goes back to circuit court, he said.

Mr. Berman said states have a right to require candidates to prove they have “a modicum of public support” to qualify for the ballot.

He argued that collecting the signatures of 1 percent of active voters is reasonable.

“Why don’t you have a modicum of support when you have enough signatures to qualify as a party?” Judge John C. Eldridge asked.

Mr. Eldridge said Republican and Democratic candidates can file, even though they “may not have anybody for them except themselves.”

Only six parties have qualified in Maryland.

“I don’t think that’s going to lead to cluttered ballots,” Mr. Eldridge said.

The judges did not give any indication when they would issue a ruling.

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