Boston Globe: How political insiders control the ballot (In the News)

By Jeff Jacoby

There are plenty of reasons why voters in Michigan’s 13th congressional district might want to usher Conyers into retirement. The man is 85, he has been in Congress for half a century, and in recent years he has compiled an embarrassing record of ethical lapses and controversies. He is often visibly befuddled.

But none of that is relevant to the petition-signature requirement that knocked Conyers off the ballot. His campaign turned in more than the necessary number of signatures from registered voters in the district — 1,236 of them, according to local election officials. But nearly half of those signatures were thrown out because the petition circulators hired to collect them weren’t themselves registered voters.

Why in the world should it make the slightest difference whether the people canvassing for signatures outside the local supermarket or at the town dump are registered to vote?

It shouldn’t. Conyers fell afoul of a proviso whose only real purpose, like so many other election-law conditions, is to ensnare the unwary or to make ballot access more difficult for insurgents and outsiders. Such traps are not just obnoxious, they are unconstitutional: In 1999 the Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that required petition circulators to wear identification badges and be registered voters in the state. Under the First Amendment, the court ruled, such “undue hindrances to political conversations and the exchange of ideas” are intolerable. So Conyers and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Michigan law, and arguing that the valid signatures collected by the all of the congressman’s canvassers should be counted and his name placed on the ballot.