"Bill could exclude tea party from presidential ballot"
2011-04-21 by William March from "The Tampa Tribune" newspaper [http://beta2.tbo.com/news/politics/2011/apr/21/bill-could-exclude-tea-party-from-presidential-bal-ar-201233/]
A little-noticed provision of the state Legislature's controversial elections bill would make it extremely difficult for a new political party to put a candidate on the state presidential ballot - a provision some say is aimed at keeping a tea party candidate off the ballot.
The section says that a new party seeking a presidential ballot placement must be recognized by the Federal Election Commission as a national party, or must collect voter petition signatures equal to 4 percent of voters in the state's last presidential election - more than 335,000.
They must include 4 percent in each of at least half the state's congressional districts, a tough job in Florida's oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts.
Getting FEC recognition is also problematic, said Richard Winger of San Francisco, an expert on ballot access laws who argues for easier access to ballots for non-major party candidates.
He said the FEC has no objective rules for recognition, but won't recognize a new party until after it has already run candidates for president and congress in several states.
That's why the Reform Party didn't get FEC recognition until 1997, following Ross Perot's run in 1996 as its candidate.
Winger said the provision appears aimed at keeping a tea party candidate off the 2012 Florida ballot. Peg Dunmire, chairman of a Florida party that says it represents the tea party movement, agreed.
"This is part of the assault to keep choice from the public," she said. "There's a concerted effort by the two parties to keep it a two-party system."
The Florida Tea Party ran candidates for several offices in 2010, including Dunmire for the congressional seat won by Republican Dan Webster, and former Polk County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson for the seat won by Republican Dennis Ross of Lakeland.
Republicans feared the candidates would siphon off GOP voters, and some alleged that the party was part a plot by Democrats - an accusation vehemently rejected by Dunmire.
In no case, she and Winger said, did a tea party candidate cause a Republican to lose. Republicans facing tea party candidates either won, or the Democratic candidate won by more than 50 percent.
Dunmire said there's "a very good chance" of a tea party candidate for president seeking to get on the Florida 2012 ballot, but wouldn't elaborate on why or who.
It's unclear where the minor-party provisions in the bill came from.
They were part of a "committee substitute" -- an amendment proposed by a committee to revise an entire bill -- for a bill originally sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Baxley said he's not familiar with the minor-party provisions, but doesn't believe they're aimed at the tea party because he's heard no discussion of such a move.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, committee chairman, said he doesn't know where the minor-party language came from.
"There were a lot of stakeholders involved" in producing the legislation, including elections supervisors, legislators and the state Division of Elections, he said.
But he said Florida has had a problem with individuals registering minor parties with the state Division of Elections that in some cases have no registered voter members.
"I know there was language that was designed to insure that parties that gain access to the ballot have legitimacy," he said. "I support the idea of making sure parties are legitimate."
Winger said, however, that a different section of the bill would prevent registering of non-existent parties. He said the ballot access provisions likely wouldn't pass court review under either the U.S. or Florida Constitution.
The federal appeals court for the 11th Circuit, which includes Florida, has issued rulings that probably would invalidate it, and it would also violate ballot access provisions of the Florida Constitution, he said.
Final House action on the bill could come as early as today. A Senate version contains similar provisions, but with a 2 percent petition requirement instead of 4 percent.