SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Ninth Circuit heard arguments Tuesday morning that an Arizona law requiring a certain number of signatures to place candidates on primary election ballots unconstitutionally burdens the state’s Libertarian Party.
In 2016, the Arizona Libertarian Party sued the secretary of state claiming state law imposed severe signature requirements on the party, hindering its ability to get on the primary ballot.
The party is now appealing a 2017 decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell finding the requirements for primary and write-in candidates are fair.
Arizona changed its signature requirements in July 2015 to increase the number of signatures needed on nomination petitions to qualify candidates for placement on ballots.
“Under Arizona law, the Arizona Libertarian Party is entitled to put its nominees on the election ballot,” argued Oliver Hall, an attorney for the party, in front of a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday.
Hall said Campbell’s decision conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held states may not require more than 5 percent of eligible voters to appear on the ballot. Hall said the Arizona law requires the party to garner the support of as many as 30 percent of eligible voters, a number that Campbell took issue with in his ruling.
Campbell found the change was not “unconstitutionally burdensome” for the party because it ensures candidates who reach the ballot have a “threshold of support.”
The judge added: “If a candidate was not required to show any threshold of support through votes or petition signatures, she could win her primary and reach the general ballot with no significant modicum of support at all.”
He did recognize that the law created a “significant increase” in signatures needed for Libertarian candidates.
In one legislative district, the number of signatures needed to access the primary ballot jumped from 25 to 220 signatures after the law was enacted. The Libertarian Party has about 30,000 members across Arizona.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace, a Richard Nixon appointee, said Arizona appears to be trying to clean up the primary ballot so that it mirrors the final ballot.
“Less clutter, confusing problems,” Wallace said.
“Primary election ballot access requirements and general election ballot requirements are separate,” Hall said. “The Arizona Libertarian Party is entitled to place its nominees on the primary election ballot.”
U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown noted that the party’s closed primary does not make it easier to meet ballot requirements.
“You have by your own affirmative rules upped the ante so to speak,” McKeown, a Bill Clinton appointee, said. “Why is the state law unconstitutional when you choose to characterize your party in a certain way?”
Hall answered, “That is simply an exercise of a core First Amendment right. We don’t want to allow nonmembers to influence our nominating.”
Under Arizona law, a party with an open primary could collect signatures from registered party members, independents, and unaffiliated voters. A closed primary limits signatures to registered members of the party.
Kara Karlson, an attorney for the Arizona secretary of state, says the law is applied the same way to each established political party.
“The state is not asking the Libertarian Party to do something different than any of the other established parties,” Karlson argued.
She said the intent of the law was to try to get the state’s unaffiliated voters involved in the political process. Arizona has about 1.1 million voters that are unaffiliated with a political party.
“The Libertarians can be the ones to allow them to vote,” Karlson said.
The panel did not indicate when it would rule.
U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, also a Clinton appointee, rounded out the panel.