Judge strikes down Maine law that unenrolled voters from minor political parties

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A federal district court judge found that Secretary of State Shenna Bellows violated free association rights of the Libertarian Party of Maine (LPME) when she began removing their affiliated voters from the state’s Central Voter Registration (CVR) system after they failed to meet statutory requirements relating to the number of voters enrolled in the party. In his ruling in Baines v. Bellows, Judge Lance Walker found the party’s right to association had been violated by the state’s political party registration requirements. 

Walker struck down two of the state’s ballot access laws that apply to emerging and minor political parties.

The case was first filed by representatives of the LPME after it lost its qualified party status in 2019. Jim Baines, the party chair and an appellant in the case, said the party is “cautiously optimistic right now.”

“We certainly are gratified that the court recognized the unconstitutional burdens Maine’s bipartisan lawmakers impose on new parties, and we look forward to the opportunity to seek an appropriate remedy for the violation of those rights,” Baines said.

Much of Walker’s ruling focused on the background of the case, as well as the statutory processes laid out in Maine law that govern political party qualification. A qualified political party is able to participate in state-run primary elections, earn an automatic ballot line for nominees in the general election, and can enroll voters as party members in the CVR.

To become a qualified party, 10 or more unenrolled voters have to file a declaration of intent with the Secretary of State. The party must then provisionally enroll at least 5,000 voters in order to participate in the next general election. A party must then preserve its qualified status by enrolling at least 10,000 voters or running a candidate for governor or president who receives at least 5% of the statewide vote.

A party has from the time it is qualified to the second general election after it receives that status to attain one of those benchmarks. If it fails to do so, the party will be disqualified.

What happens to the party’s enrolled voters after it becomes disqualified is at the heart of Walker’s recent ruling. Maine statute states that a voter enrolled in a party that fails to meet the requirements for qualification is “considered an unenrolled voter for all purposes.” 

The Secretary of State purges enrolled voters from the CVR in batches. Voters remain registered to vote, but they are recorded as independents rather than members of the disqualified party.

“Members of disqualified parties thus find themselves once again at square zero: if they wish to compete in future elections, they must file a declaration with the Secretary, ask all formerly enrolled members to complete new voter registration cards, and hope once more to meet the deadlines and enrollment threshold prescribed in Maine law,” Walker wrote in his ruling. 

Walker noted that the Supreme Court has made it clear in past rulings that states can create conditions for ballot access for minor parties and Maine’s “initial party qualification threshold and retention threshold are constitutional.” The 10,000 enrollment threshold accounts for roughly 1% of Maine’s electorate, which Walker notes is close to the bottom end of the range courts have upheld as constitutional. 

But Walker takes issue with Maine’s party enrollment threshold, which he says places a greater burden on minor parties than a ballot access process based on petition signatures. Maine replaced petition signatures with the enrollment threshold in 2013.

Enrollment requires more proactive action than petition gathering, Walker notes, and “burdens not only the party’s associational freedom, but also the freedom of unenrolled voters who might support a party’s push to access the ballot while not wishing to pledge themselves to the party.”

But because the enrollment threshold is roughly 1% of the electorate, Walker was not persuaded that the burden this places on associational freedom is severe. Walker was also not persuaded that the initial period parties seeking qualification have to enroll 5,000 voters is burdensome because it does not coincide with election years.

“An entire year is a considerable amount of time and —at least in the current era—the public retains a substantial interest in politics even during off-election years,” he wrote.

Walker did object to the batch elimination process the Secretary of State’s office uses to unenroll voters of affiliated parties that have been disqualified. He referred to this process as “the purge” and wrote it places a “very substantial burden on Plaintffs’ right to associate.”

Walker said purging disqualified party members’ from the CVR is “particularly burdensome” because it prevents parties from being able to identify and organize voters. 

“By disqualifying a party, the State thus strikes a double blow to nascent political organizations—not only does it unenroll their hard-won supporters, it also deprives them of the natural growth by inertia that established parties enjoy,” Walker wrote.

In his decision, he also took issue with Maine’s party-based candidate nomination process. Under Maine law, individuals enrolled in a qualified political party are able to run for office under that party no sooner than January 1 of an election year. 

But Maine law also requires that a party collecting signatures in an effort to become qualified do so in an odd-numbered year. Because elections take place in even-number years, candidates running with newly qualified minority parties cannot collect signatures during a party’s initial voter enrollment drive. Party candidates can also only receive nomination signatures from members of their own party.

To highlight the burden Maine’s election laws put on minor political parties, Walker’s ruling compares party-candidate processes for minor party candidates and independent candidates. Independent candidates, Walker notes, need twice as many signatures for office as party candidates, but can obtain them from any eligible voter in the district in which they are running. Independent candidates also have from January 1 to May 25 to submit nominating petitions, a 144-day period that is nearly twice as long as the 74-day period party candidates have.

As a result, Walker writes that Maine’s laws provide “a more flexible route to the ballot for independent candidates as compared to minor-party candidates.”

Walker found the state’s interest in applying the party-member signature requirement is inadequate to justify the burden it places on minor parties. Walker found the burden was substantial, but not severe, and burdens the associational rights of both the LPME, its candidates and unenrolled voters.

Walker also found the requirement limits effective participation for minor parties and grants ballot access to qualified minor parties “in name only.”

Bellows argued that a candidate could unenroll from a minor party and run as an independent, which lessened the burden the requirement puts on candidates. But Walker disagreed with Bellows’ argument.

“[i]f anything, the law’s disparate treatment toward independent candidates and members of ballot-qualified minor parties is further evidence of the harm to Plaintiff’s constitutional rights,” Walker wrote.

Again, Walker found the burden was not severe, subjecting it to a lower level of judicial review. But even under that review, Walker found the requirement “fails to pass constitutional muster.”

Application of the party-member signature requirement to Plaintiffs—when the Party was ballot qualified—was neither necessary nor reasonably calibrated to further Maine’s interest in “ensuring sufficient party support among the electorate and sufficient candidate support within the party,” Walker wrote.

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