Thursday, July 17, 2014

Off Ramp from the Campaign Trail

Afterthoughts from an almost-candidate

Last week, I called it a day. The numbers just didn't add up. I couldn't squeeze another qualified voter out of the 1,259 signatures that lay before me.

In order to appear on the ballot for U.S. House of Representatives as an independent candidate, I had to present signatures of registered 11th District voters to the Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) by June 10. SBE then distributed the petitions to the general registrars of the jurisdictions that constitute the District – the counties of Fairfax and Prince William as well as the City of Fairfax – for verification that at least 1,000 signatures were registered as voters in the 11th. Of the those collected, 302 signatures were not verified as qualified voters from the 11th – about half of the 302 were from adjoining districts.

The ballot petition process is not known to many voters and 2014 offered a unique situation: the major parties did not hold primary elections; a voter's signature was the only way for the electorate to affect which candidates appear on the General Election ballot.

SBE recommends that each Congressional candidate collect 1,500 signatures to get to the 1,000-signature threshold. In 2012 I had collected 1,404 signatures and qualified, finishing third of six candidates – I like to call my finish "best of the rest" after the major party candidates. The 2014 campaign for ballot access posed advantages and challenges: I knew the process for both SBE and the Federal Elections Commission, and had established relationships with the media and community organizations. But my role at "my real job" had changed causing me to spend significantly more time with my clients, and I couldn't bear to sacrifice family time in a quixotic attempt to dislodge an entrenched incumbent.

A further challenge is the disparate rules for ballot access for independent and "other party" candidates. A "recognized political party" in Virginia is held to a lower standard with special treatment in qualifying for election and with favoritism, always placing its candidate in one of the top two reserved ballot slots.

Following the 2010 Census the 11th District was reshaped – dare I say gerrymandered? – to secure a comfortable win for the incumbent. Now Annandale, Centreville, Dale City, Herndon, and Lorton are cut in half. Snippets of Falls Church and Springfield are incorporated while parts of Annadale, Oakton, and Vienna are lopped off. Clifton and Fairfax Station were dealt to the 10th even though geographically removed and part of Fairfax County, the dominate jurisdiction of the 11th.

Redistricting resulted in confused voters; many did not know their Congressional representative. Some voters are surrounded by one District but registered in another. One Falls Church petition signer could see his 11th District neighbor not 50 feet across his residential street but was separated from his voting district by a major thoroughfare. More than one Reston resident told me they felt like a ping-pong ball, getting bounced back and forth every ten years.

Not all voters were willing to offer a petition signature, and I found a marked difference in the attitude toward independent candidates between the voters Fairfax and Prince William counties. While many Fairfax voters would say "I don't know you" and decline to sign, a larger portion of the Prince William voters I met said "we need more independents" and sign without questioning my motives or views.

I met terrific, passionate people along the way and made one long-distance friend: Terry Hampton, an independent running in Missouri's 8th Congressional District. Though her views differ from mine and her District far larger, more agrarian, and more homogenous, we both felt a drive to challenge the status quo of staid, monied politics.

Between now and November 4 I’ll be on vacation, at the community pool, and with my in-laws to celebrate their 50th anniversary. In the coming years I hope to work to make the ballot more accessible for independent candidates and make voting more accessible for all registered voters. But not another Congressional run.

And my vote? I don't know yet. The candidates from the 11th District are a professional politician (the incumbent), a major party candidate chosen by convention rather than primary election, a self-described "legal and political media analyst", and a government retiree. Save for the last, not very representative of the electorate. None of the qualified candidates represent my views or my aspirations for America; that's why I ran in 2012 and why I tried to get on the ballot this year.

The political center, moderate policies, and effective representative government are secondary objectives for the major political parties; gamesmanship, vitriol, and trivial pursuits are the focus. My campaign financing came out of my own wallet, making me a little poorer. The current state and endgame of party politics beggar us all.