Closed Ballots
George Szamuely
New York Press


The news that Michigan Gov. John Engler and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are seeking to keep Pat Buchanan off the ballot in their states in November barely caused a ripple. While the United States keeps a watchful eye on electoral fraud all over the world, it appears to take a much more benign view of ballot rigging here at home. Every election is fixed to ensure that interlopers are kept out. There are four prominent candidates running for the presidency. But the presidential debates – generally agreed to be the most important event in the election calendar – will feature only the nominees of the two major parties. The Commission on Presidential Debates has ruled that to get into the debates a candidate must be able to enjoy at least 15 percent support in the polls.

Fifteen percent is well beyond the reach of any politician who lacks the financial resources to buy saturation media coverage the way Ross Perot did in 1992. Moreover, the reliance on opinion polls is absurd. The purpose of any opinion poll is not to elicit information but to pressure people into falling into line. The "majority" opinion is obviously the correct one and must therefore be adopted. This "majority" is invariably an artificial creation, the product of carefully crafted questions. Polls are, remember, quite expensive, and they are paid for by interested parties who want to see certain results. The questions are usually devoid of meaning. A Mori polling handbook instructs interviewers who are asked what a question means to reply, "Whatever you want it to mean." Thus, "Is Bill Clinton doing a good or a bad job as president?" rather depends on what the job of president entails. The opinions of those who refuse to take part – people sensible enough not to drop everything to start chatting with a complete stranger on the phone – do not register in the poll results. Those who refuse to answer a pollster because they find the question silly will have their opinions remain unregistered. There is no possibility of a more complicated reply that does not fit into the multiple-choice quiz format of the questioner.

It is hard also to take seriously the requirement that a candidate must achieve a minimum poll number. The polls are often wrong. They vary widely, and they fluctuate so wildly as to render them almost totally devoid of credibility. How can George W. Bush be up by 17 points one week, and down by as much as eight points a few weeks later? The American electorate simply is not that volatile. Since no dramatic events are taking place, and no hotly contested issues are being debated, the poll numbers reflect little more than responses to the poll numbers. The polls generate stories about the "Gore surge," which in turn serve to boost the Gore numbers, thereby leading to more stories about the "Gore surge" and so on.

While the United States is perpetually concerned about "opposition figures" getting media access in places like Yugoslavia, the cozy relationship here between the media and the political establishment is rarely up for discussion. The millions that the two major political parties raise from their donors, as well as the federal matching funds they collect, are largely spent on advertising. The money goes directly into the pockets of the giant media corporations. Thus the media has every interest in flattering the two major parties and neglecting the minority parties. The media also conducts the opinion polls. It is instructive how often they ask respondents whom they intend to vote for, Bush or Gore, without so much as hinting that there might be other alternatives.

It is very unlikely also that the United States would be particularly understanding toward another country if it imposed electoral hurdles on independent parties as numerous and as terrifying as the ones on the statute books here. Most states require third parties to gather tens of thousands of signatures for a petition to be on the state ballot. There are also often strict deadlines on the gathering of such signatures. A candidate for president running in the Democratic or Republican primary can get on the ballot simply by paying a filing fee, although some states do require that a primary candidate submit a petition signed by a not especially large number of voters. By contrast, a candidate running as an independent in the general election will have to collect thousands of petition signatures in each state to be on the ballot.

Independent presidential candidates and third-party nominees need approximately 750,000 valid signatures to be on the general election ballot of all 50 states. For Democrats and Republicans, access is virtually automatic. Democratic Party candidates require 25,500 signatures and Republican Party candidates 54,250 signatures. Thirty-two of the 41 states that hold presidential primaries require no signatures from the major-party candidates. Candidates who, amazingly, manage to get on 50 state ballots end up exhausted and penniless, very much like Pat Buchanan. Were it not for the federal matching funds, his campaign would be more or less over today.

These ballot restrictions were enacted for the sole purpose of denying third parties and independent candidates access to power. In 1924, only 50,000 petition signatures were required to place a new party on the ballot in 48 states. During the 1930s, laws were passed to make ballot access increasingly more difficult. New parties had to gather more and more signatures and to file for application earlier and earlier in the campaign year. In the aftermath of George Wallace’s remarkable run, ballot-access became extraordinarily difficult.

Perhaps Milosevic should send over a Yugoslav observer mission to monitor November’s election.

Read George Szamuely's Exclusive Column

Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Closed Ballots

Kicking Dick

Whore on Drugs

Soros' World

The Good Lieberman

Nader-Buchanan 2000

W's Oil Warriors

Rupert's Hillary

The Veep's No VIP

Hollow Mexico

Death of Innocents

NATO's Home Free

Poll Attacks

Israel's Powerful Friends

Defense Against What?

God Bless Rehnquist!

Long, Hillary Summer

Communicating Power

Law as Ordered

What Threat?

Peculiar Yet Brave

Closed to Debate

Arrogance of Power

Prison Love

Gore's Oil

Rough Justice

Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be Un-American

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press


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