COVINGTON, Ky. (CN) — A change to the deadline for independent political candidates to register for elections signed is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Kentucky House Bill 114, signed into law by former Governor Matt Bevin in March 2019, changed the deadline for state and local candidates to declare their candidacy from April 1 to the last Tuesday in January.
The law was made retroactive to include 2019, and prevented several Libertarian candidates from filing their statements of candidacy with the board of elections.
The candidates were informed by former Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes they could not be placed on the ballot without a court order, so they filed a federal suit, joined by the Kentucky Libertarian Party.
Grimes, the Kentucky Board of Elections and its members, and several local officials were named as defendants.
By May 2019, the local defendants and the board of elections had entered into consent orders that said they would not defend the legislation and would be bound by any decision made by the federal court.
The only board member to opt out of the consent order was Katrina Fitzgerald, who defended the filing deadline on her own before the Wednesday ruling.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman sided with the Libertarians and granted their motion for summary judgment, finding the early registration requirement unconstitutional.
Bertelsman credited lay and expert testimony provided by the candidates, and determined the early deadline “creates numerous serious problems for would-be independent candidates.”
Among those problems were the difficulty of organizing a campaign during the holiday season, and attempting to recruit candidates so far in advance of the election.
Fitzgerald argued that the 1-page declaration of candidacy does not create a burden, and could be filed by anyone who is considering running for office, but Bertelsman disagreed.
“This argument confuses a logistical burden with a constitutional burden,” he wrote (emphasis in original).
Bertelsman cited the 1990 Fourth Circuit ruling in Cromer v. State of South Carolina, which dealt with a similar early deadline.
The court in Cromer held that the problem with the deadline “is in having to make the draconian decision at a time when a rational basis for making it does not exist.
“At this time the party candidates have not been chose, and even the identity of those who may become candidates may not be known. The election itself is seven months of unfolding events away.”
Bertelsman found that Kentucky’s early deadline was just as burdensome as the one in Cromer.
“While HB 114 also advanced the deadline for major party candidates to file nomination papers to approximately two weeks prior to the independents’ Statement-of-Candidacy deadline, the independents’ deadline is still four months before the primary election and eleven months before the general election,” Bertelsman wrote. “The above burdens therefore cannot be remedied by simply filling a one-page form in an informational vacuum.”
Fitzgerald also argued that the law advanced the governmental interest of making voters aware of candidates as early as possible and promoting “voter education,” but Bertelsman was not persuaded.
He cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling in Anderson v. Celebrezze, in which it rejected voter education as a justification for early filing deadlines for independent candidates.
Bertelsman’s ruling affected only the filing deadline portion of HB 114 and left other parts of the legislation untouched, including changes to the board of elections.
One change designated the secretary of state as a nonvoting member of the board of elections, which prevents the secretary from serving as chairman of the board.
Previously, the secretary was automatically named the chairman of the state Board of Elections.