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VOL. 42 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 2, 2018

Why do we have 28 candidates in governor’s race? It's simple

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Libertarians have flooded the Tennessee ballot for governor in an effort to show how hard it is to get on the Tennessee ballot. Let me explain.

It is in fact ridiculously easy to get on the ballot in Tennessee. Any Tom, Dick or Funkmaster V (more about him later) can qualify simply by meeting age and residency requirements for office and providing a petition with the valid signatures of 25 voters. There’s no fee.

There is, however, a catch: Only Democrats and Republicans are identified by party. Other candidates, whatever their actual affiliation, are simply “independent.”

Of which 26 are running for governor. With the two from the major parties, that’s a whopping 28.

“For regularly scheduled statewide general elections, this is the greatest number of candidates on a government-printed ballot in U.S. history, for a particular office,” states Ballot Access News, a voting rights site.

Voters looking to support someone outside the two major parties would be hard pressed to differentiate among the 26 extra names.

Even Cole Ebel isn’t sure how many are Libertarians, and he’s the chairman of the Libertarian Party of Tennessee.

“You don’t know the difference between Libertarians on that ballot or Green Party members,” he says, though the divide between the political philosophies is often substantial.

The battle for a designated place on the ballot by minor parties in Tennessee has been going on for some time.

Federal courts have been receptive to their arguments, but every time a minor party wins in court, Ebel explains, the state moves the goalpost slightly to thwart the effort.

The ballot pathway provided by state law is for a party to gather valid signatures totaling 2.5 percent of the votes cast for governor in the previous election. For the 2018 ballot, that’s 33,844 signatures.

Libertarians tried to meet that goal, Ebel says. They raised thousands of dollars, expended tens of thousands of hours canvassing. And managed, over a couple of years, to get about 17,000 signatures. Ebel figures that maybe 10,000 could have been certified.

Republicans and Democrats never had to clear that hurdle, by the way. State law always grants them ballot status.

Libertarians also tried, starting in 2017, to work with the Legislature to make it easier to get on the ballot. But bills in the Senate and in the House stalled. The ballot-flooding effort followed.

The initial Libertarian goal had been to field 20 candidates, but some dropped off for one reason or another.

“We have a legitimate 14 or 15 left on it,” Ebel says.

The others – save for Yvonne Neubert of Knoxville, a Green Partier who Ebel says joined the effort in sympathy and who bills herself as the Cannabis Candidate – are anybody’s guess.

“They could be Libertarians, for all we know,” Ebel points out. “They’re just not involved with our party.”

One who is involved is the previously mentioned Funkmaster V, listed as Vinnie Vineyard on the ballot. A Pigeon Forge resident, he is or has been a professional bad-guy wrestler, Christian rock bass player, ghost hunter and taxi driver, among other pursuits.

“Believe in the Funk in 2018,” his website exhorts.

If Libertarians were able to caucus and put forward a single candidate identified as such, the Funkmaster would perhaps not be the choice.

But he and the others do hope to serve a purpose.

“The most we can hope for now is a public outcry,” Ebel adds.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett says the steep signature requirement for identification on the ballot “ensures that new political parties are actually political parties and not just a few people who support a candidate.

It also reduces administrative costs associated with preparing ballots and keeps the ballot from becoming confusing.”

But confusing, Ebel says, is precisely what a ballot is when it contains lots of names, with no party label to assist with identification. That’s the point of the flooding effort.

“It’s not that we’re trying to cause a stink; we’re just trying to get attention to the issue,” explains Ebel, a tavern owner who is running for the city council in Carthage on a nonpartisan ballot.

A lot of people are fed up with the two major parties, he says, and are faced with a choice of trying to figure out which one to vote against.

“We want to be the thing they vote for.’’

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.