Ballot Access Problem For Bernie Sanders?

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In what I assume is a moment of mischief, former NH Republican congressman Charlie Bass has penned a WaPo op-ed suggesting that Bernie Sanders’ robust poll numbers in NH may not matter because he will not be elgible to run for president in the Granite State as a Democrat. Here’s the logic:

[S]tate law makes clear that candidates must be registered members of the party on whose ballot line they wish to appear.

This is a problem for Sanders, who is not a registered Democrat. One might ask why the good senator can’t simply change his registration in his home state from socialist or independent to Democrat. The answer is that Vermont doesn’t have a party registration system, so he can’t. Similar issues arose with the candidacies of Al Gore and both George H.W. and George W. Bush because, like Vermont, Tennessee and Texas do not register voters by party. But Gore and the Bushes qualified for New Hampshire’s primary ballots because they could show that they had previously appeared on ballots as a Democrat and Republicans, respectively. In his last election, Sanders likewise won the Democratic primary in Vermont, but he declined the nomination and asked that his name not appear on the general election ballot as a Democrat.

In short, Sanders is not a Democrat, has not been elected as a Democrat, has never served as a Democrat and cannot plausibly claim, at least in New Hampshire, to be a Democrat.

According to Bass, a State Ballot Law Commission would rule on any challenge to Sanders’ ballot access, and he thinks it would be compelled to exclude Bernie. Presumably the courts could offer a way around the Commission; I’m not sure what the legal or constitutional rationale would be, but it would be a mite strange to hold that an independent could not contest a primary in which independent voters are allowed to participate. And even if Bernie was to be excluded, he could always run a write-in campaign (which have been known to succeed in NH, viz. Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964).

Whether or not Bass is pointing to a real problem in NH, it is a reminder that there could be issues for Sanders elsewhere, particularly in closed primary and caucus states deemed legally to be open only to registered Democrats. It would be a bit ironic if the candidate of people who view themselves as representing the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” wasn’t Democratic enough to get on the ballot. But if you insist on holding yourself apart from and above the corrupt, corporate-whore “centrists” of the Donkey Party, there may be consequences. And if you think it’s obvious Bernie qualifies, how would you feel about, say, Joe Lieberman running in Democratic presidential primaries after separating himself from that party in his last reelection campaign and by endorsing John McCain in 2008 (and nobody in 2012)?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.