19 March 2012

The rights of 'legitimate candidates'

As I assume that Republicans in the 21st century are champions of state rights, I find it slightly unorthodox, if also perfectly understandable, that Rick Santorum wants state rules governing ballot access changed so that he, as a self-styled "legitimate candidate for president," can appear on the party primary ballot in every state in the union. "They [presumably referring to states like Virginia and Illinois] shouldn't have these byzantine ballot requirements," the Pennsylvanian told Fox News today. Due to his late emergence as a credible candidate, and Illinois's district-based rules, Santorum will appear on the primary ballot in only 10 of the state's 14 congressional districts tomorrow.

Can Santorum will the end without willing the means? Each state makes its own election law except when the Constitution forbids them from restricting voting rights along specific lines. Accepting state rules is the price both major parties pay for leaving the administration of primary elections in the hands of the states. Whether or not you accept the premise that government-supervision of party primaries favors incumbents, you may think it unfair, as Santorum apparently does, that a national candidate is chosen by delegates who aren't chosen by consistent rules across the country. There are three possible solutions. The first, most consistent with state-right principles, would be to lobby each state to adopt the same ballot-access rules voluntarily in a process similar to the National Popular Vote project, which lobbies states to join a pact awarding their electoral votes to the presidential candidate with the most votes nationwide. The second option is to enact federal ballot-access rules for presidential primaries through a constitutional amendment. This would eliminate the objection that each primary is a state election because it chooses delegates representing the state at a national convention; conventions could still be done that way, but the Constitution would recognize the fact already printed on the ballot that primary voters are choosing candidates first, delegates second. The third option would be to privatize political parties by withdrawing primaries from state control. That way, in theory, the Republican National Committee could then set national rules for state primaries, just like the by-laws of any private association. In that case, the only obstacle Santorum would face would be convincing the RNC that he is what he claims to be -- a legitimate presidential candidate. All joking aside, we should presume any party capable of rules or standards for ballot access, unless we prefer that parties, like the nation in the ideal scenario, does away with the tyranny of the ballot altogether. Ballot access is only an issue because there isn't room for anyone on a physical ballot. The most egalitarian elections will be those without ballots -- when people know who they want and don't have to worry about finding the name on a list. That utopian option raises a final question: how level a playing field does someone like Santorum, who's certainly doing everything he can to push Newt Gingrich out of the race if not off any ballot, really want?

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