Ninth Circuit Puts Kibosh on Libertarian Fight of Arizona Election Rules

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – While Arizona’s election requirements may force Libertarians to work harder to put candidates on the primary ballot, the rules passed constitutional muster Friday with a Ninth Circuit panel.

In 2015, Arizona changed its signature requirements to increase the number of signatures needed on nomination petitions to qualify candidates for placement on ballots.

While parties with open primaries can collect signatures from registered party members, independents and unaffiliated voters, parties with a closed primary – like the Libertarian Party in Arizona can only take signatures from registered Libertarians. As a result, the Libertarian Party saw fewer candidates on the 2016 primary ballot and sued the state.

In 2017, a federal judge granted summary judgment to the state after finding it “difficult to conclude that Arizona’s requirement is unconstitutionally burdensome.” And after grilling the party’s lawyers at a hearing this past March, on Friday a Ninth Circuit panel agreed.

“Arizona has no ‘constitutional imperative to reduce voter apathy or to “handicap” an unpopular [party] to increase the likelihood that [its] candidate[s] will’ qualify for the primary ballot,” U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in a 21-page opinion. “The state’s signature requirements are reasonable restrictions that impose, at most, a modest burden on the Libertarian Party’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, while directly advancing Arizona’s important regulatory interests.”

McKeown, a Bill Clinton appointee, noted the “modest burden” is justified to avoid voter confusion, ballot overcrowding, and frivolous candidacies.

“Conditioning primary ballot placement on a demonstration of significant community support advances Arizona’s interests in the administration of its primary andgeneral elections,” McKeown wrote.

The panel also rejected the party’s argument that the requirement is impossible since there are over 32,000 registered Libertarians in the state. “Libertarian candidates can qualify for the primary ballot with signatures from 11% to 30% of party members in their jurisdictions, and no evidence suggests it is impossible to do so as a practical matter,” McKeown wrote.

Libertarians got nowhere with their argument that the Republican and Democratic parties in Arizona have lower signature-gathering thresholds.

“That a Libertarian candidate must submit signatures representing a higher percentage of his party membership than a Democratic or Republican candidate is a consequence of the Libertarian Party’s modest size, not a fatal flaw of the statutory scheme,” McKeown wrote.

And while the Green Party – much smaller at just 6,500 registered voters – saw more candidates on the 2016 ballot than Libertarians, it has the burden as a “new party” of submitting 20,000 signatures every four years to pursue placement on the ballot, a requirement the Libertarian Party does not have as an established party.

U.S. Circuit Judges J. Clifford Wallace, a Richard Nixon appointee, and A. Wallace Tashima – also a Clinton appointee – joined McKeown’s opinion.

Arizona Libertarian Party chair Howard Blitz blasted the decision, saying the court shouldn’t be “restricting the number of options from which the citizenry have to choose” in elections.

“The court basically got it wrong, on both the facts and the law,” Blitz said in an email. “Being required to collect 35 times as many signatures to qualify for the ballot compared to the decades before the change in the law is not a ‘modest’ burden on the Libertarian Party’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The requirement of having Libertarian Party candidates to collect signatures from registered Independents dilutes the Libertarian brand and violates any party’s right to freedom of association.”

The Libertarian Party’s lead attorney, Oliver Hall from Center for Competitive Democracy, declined to comment without seeing the opinion.

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