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VOL. 36 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 30, 2012

Court to reconsider Tennessee 3rd party ballot access

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A lower court must reconsider whether Tennessee law makes it too difficult for third parties to get on the ballot, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

In February, U.S. District Judge William Haynes Jr. struck down state rules requiring third-party candidates for high-level offices to be selected through a primary. He also struck down a requirement that the parties and candidates collect about 40,000 signatures and turn them in seven months before the election.

After that decision, the General Assembly changed the law to make it easier on third parties.

Under the new rules, minor political parties can still use the primary process. They also have the option of selecting nominees in accordance with their own internal rules.

If they chose to do the latter, the parties still have to collect signatures, but they don't have to turn them in until 90 days before the election. The individual candidates don't have to c ollect signatures.

The three-judge panel for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling from Cincinnati, sent the case back to the lower court to re-evaluate the rules in light of the recent changes.

Green Party of Tennessee co-chair Katey Culver said she was a little disappointed in the ruling but understood why the issue needed to be reconsidered.

"We certainly are in a much better position today than when we filed the suit," she said, referring to the changes to the law.

The court also overturned the lower court's determination that a prohibition on the words "independent" and "nonpartisan" in party names was unconstitutional.

The suit was brought by the Green Party of Tennessee and the Constitution Party of Tennessee, neither of which have the prohibited words in their names.

Friday's ruling did not determine that the prohibition was constitutional. Rather, the court said the two minor parties could not challenge the prohibition beca use they were unaffected by it.

The plaintiffs also had challenged a requirement that the party having a majority of members in the General Assembly (currently the Republican Party) be listed first on the ballot, the minority party (Democrats) be listed second and all other parties be listed afterward.

The district court had struck down that requirement in February, ordering the state to determine ballot order by a random drawing. But the 6th Circuit in August put a hold on that order, letting the ballot placement for the November election go on as usual.

On Friday, the 6th Circuit overturned the district court's decision and sent the issue back for further review. In doing so, the Appeals Court said there was not enough evidence in the record to determine that the ballot placement rules created a voter bias for the majority party.

The plaintiffs should have the opportunity to present more evidence when the district court hears the issue again.

T ennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said he was pleased with the court's ruling.

Goins said he believes that the law strikes a good balance between allowing legitimate minor parties to be on the ballot and preventing abuse by parties with little public support.

"We have a law in Tennessee that is fair, and the court recognized it does not violate anyone's constitutional rights," he said.