Strict rules are important
But in the case of Nader petitions, it appears elections staff overreached
Reaction to last week's court ruling ordering Ralph Nader's name placed on the Oregon ballot tends to vary depending on the goring of oxen, but to us, two clear messages emerge.
First, Elections Director John Lindback is right when he says the secretary of state needs to have broad authority to interpret rules designed to weed out fraudulent signatures on petitions. The stakes are too high to be anything less than vigilant when it comes to those who would influence state government, whether by initiative or by nominating a presidential candidate.
Second, it appears that, in this case at least, state elections officials may have been overzealous in enforcing highly technical restrictions on the way in which petition sheets were numbered, signed and certified. Certainly the outcome has given Secretary of State Bill Bradbury's political opponents plenty of opportunity to accuse him of trying to keep Nader off the ballot to help fellow Democrat John Kerry win the state.
The case is not yet finished; the Elections Division will appeal Marion County Circuit Judge Paul Lipscomb's ruling to the state Supreme Court. But the final outcome will have little or no effect on the Nov. 2 election.
Ralph Nader polled 5 percent of the presidential vote in Oregon in 2000, when he appeared on the ballot. But recent polls indicate he has 1.5 percent support at best this time around.
The reality is that committed Nader voters will vote for him regardless of whether he appears on the ballot; they can write in anyone they choose, after all. They certainly won't vote for Kerry just because Nader's name doesn't appear.
— At the same time, Kerry supporters, or those committed to defeating President Bush, won't vote for Nader, even if his name appears.
Those voters simply looking for an alternative to the two major-party candidates have plenty of options already, with or without Nader. Candidates for the Pacific Green Party, the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party are on the ballot.
Nader was fighting an uphill battle from the start in this campaign. His supporters tried and failed twice to get 1,000 registered voters to show up at a nominating convention. The petition drive was a last-ditch effort by true believers ' with the help of some cynical Republicans who figured any extra candidate to the left of Bush would drain votes away from Kerry.
Under those circumstances, there were bound to be plenty of questionable signatures gathered, and we don't blame Bradbury's staff for imposing strict standards.
But when those standards go beyond the norm, as the judge suggests, candidates and petition gatherers are forced to clear a too-high hurdle. Then the issue shifts from ensuring that signatures are valid to ensuring that Oregonians are not arbitrarily left out of the democratic process.