GOP Nightmare: Presidential Candidates Might Not Make RI Ballot

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Local GOP leaders are warning that changes made to local ballot laws last spring could result in no Republican Presidential candidate ending up on the primary ballot in April.

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In the last General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to move the state’s presidential primary election from the first Tuesday of March to the last Tuesday of April, matching the date of the primaries in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. Supporters of the bill argued that holding the primary on the same day as other nearby states might attract more presidential candidates to the Ocean State.

But the law also forces candidates to declare by January 19, giving them just two weeks to secure 1,000 valid signatures on their nomination papers to earn a spot on the ballot. To date, none of the candidates have an organization set up in Rhode Island, according to Dave Talan, the corresponding secretary for the state GOP.

“We’re going to try to do it ourselves,” Talan said. “We’re doing it as a team effort. We believe we have the infrastructure to organize people.”

Worse than Virginia

The question of whether Republicans will struggle to make the ballot in Rhode Island comes after only two GOP candidates managed to secure the necessary 10,000 signature needed to appear on Virginia’s primary ballot. Only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul will appear on the Virginia ballot and state law doesn’t allow write-in campaigns for primaries.

Talan said candidates will face the same problems in Rhode Island, where they’ll be forced to get signatures in the dead of winter. Talan said the short timeframe and the potential of poor weather could make it difficult to obtain signatures.

“Rhode Island's laws are even worse than Virginia's,” Talan said. “We could be looking at none of the candidates getting on R.I.'s ballot, due to major changes in the R.I. law, passed in 2011 and taking effect in 2012.”

Laws Needs to be Reviewed

This wouldn’t be the first time a candidate for President failed to get on the primary ballot in Rhode Island. In 2008, Joe Biden and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richard each couldn’t garner enough signatures to appear alongside President Obama and Hillary Clinton on the ballot.

New GOP chairman Mark Zaccaria said he is concerned about what will happen with the Rhode Island ballot next year. He said only a short window is left for candidates to collect the necessary signatures. He said he would like to see ballot access laws reviewed in the state.

“I think the ballot access laws in RI probably need to be reviewed especially in light of what we can do with technology,” Zaccaria said. “The thing is do we really want to restrict ballot access? The answer is probably no.”

Talan: Laws Protect the Incumbent

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The purpose of the legislation signed into law last spring was to make sure Rhode Island’s primary laws were in compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act. The MOVE Act is designed to ensure that members of the armed services who are deployed overseas and other Americans abroad are aware of the their voting rights and have genuine opportunities to register to vote, cast their absentee ballots and be counted. The idea was that a later primary date will better enable the state to comply with part of the federal act that requires that ballots be prepared 45 days in advance of primary elections.

“This bill will help Rhode Islanders who vote by absentee ballots, while making our primary less of an afterthought nationally, sometime after Super Tuesday,” State Sen. Erin Lynch said when the bill was signed into law. “If we team up with some other larger, more populous states and make it worthwhile for candidates to come to this region, Rhode Islanders may have better opportunities to meet them. If they’re visiting, they may spend money here on advertising. And if our state gets more attention, that may help engage more voters in primaries.”

But Talan said he believes the state’s ballot access laws are too restrictive and that they offer too much protection for incumbents. He said he hopes 2012 could be an important Party-building year for Rhode Island Republicans, but fears that the new law will get in the way.

“The bigger picture is that all ballot access laws are designed to protect the incumbent and make it as difficult as possible for challengers to get on the ballot,” Talan said.

The National Stage

But supporters of the changes say the new law might help recruit more candidates to the state. Rep. Donald Lally said he hopes the state will be able to get on the national radar when it comes to Presidential elections.

“We may be the smallest state, but we love our politics,” Lally said last spring. “Being small, it’s tough for Rhode Island to attract much attention from presidential candidates. But if we hold our primary at the same time as a few other nearby states, candidates are more likely to make arrangements to swing through the region and visit us while they’re near. It will give Rhode Island voters more of a chance to be a part of the national political stage. ”

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