U.S. Court Hands Freedom Socialist Party Electoral Law Victory!

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On June 12, the Oregon Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional a 1905 state law which prevents political parties from appearing on the ballot if they share a single word in their names with an already recognised party.

Jordana Sardo, who attempted to run as a Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) candidate for the State House of Representatives in 2000, brought the suit with the party. This was the second victory for the Freedom Socialists. In 2001, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge also ruled that the law limiting ballot access is unconstitutional and found in the party’s favour. However, the Secretary of State appealed that decision. Sardo said she did not know if the state planned to appeal again, but “certainly hoped not.” “Surely this time they’ll get the message,” she said.

Steven Goldberg, the Portland attorney who represented the FSP in the case, was thrilled with the decision. “This country is controlled by Democrats and Republicans, who have become more similar as time goes on,” he said. “Anything that allows third parties to get on the ballot and further opens up the process is great.” Sardo agreed, pointing to President Bush’s promise to go to war with Iraq this year and the expansion of FBI spying powers, both of which have met no real opposition from the Democrats.

The Freedom Socialists argued that protecting this two-party hegemony in politics was the underlying reason why the Secretary of State decided to fight this case. However, in court the state maintained that the 1905 law prevented “voter confusion.” The Appeals Court disagreed. The three-judge panel concluded that withholding crucial information from voters, such as a party name, may compound voter confusion, not prevent it.

Judge Robert Wolheim, who wrote the majority decision, cited the association and voting rights guarantees of the U.S. Constitution: “The burden placed on those First Amendment rights is severe because voters are deprived of an important voting cue when candidates are unable to run for office using their party affiliation.” In denying the Secretary of State’s appeal, Judge Jack Landau, issued a concurring opinion, basing his reasoning on the Oregon Constitution. Landau wrote: “In this case the statute runs headlong into the free expression guarantee of Article I, section 8 of the state constitution.” While not binding on other states, the Appeals Court decision does set a legal precedent that can be used by others fighting similar laws in states that still have them on the books.

Sardo credited the Socialist Party, which supported the legal challenge from the very first stage, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which submitted an amicus brief signed by more than 60 organisations and individuals, with helping to win.

The Socialist Alliance and Workers Liberty were two Australian organisations among the international signatories to the amicus brief. Dick Nichols, National Co-convenrr of Socialist Alliance told the court: “The Socialist Alliance believes specific trends in the U.S. electoral system should sound a warning bell. In particular, the contested result in Florida in the recent presidential poll highlighted the need for a totally transparent, fair, representative and democratic election procedure. This can best be guaranteed by a system that protects and fosters the free competition of political ideas.” Other signatories to the amicus brief included the Oregon AFL-CIO, Radical Women and the Washington Federation of State Employees, Local 304.

“We fought this case for and with them and we won for all voters. We will offer the public answers to budget crises instead of threatening cutbacks in schools, healthcare and crucial human services. The FSP will advocate taxing corporations for these needs,” said Adrienne Weller, Portland FSP Organiser.

Kris Zickert, a young working woman, summed up how many advocates for greater ballot access felt. “I’m glad that this party, the only feminist party in Oregon, is going to be back in the political arena shaking things up,” she said. “I’m tired of downsizing my hopes to pay the rent. Maybe now I’ll have something to vote for.”

Eduardo Martínez Zapata, who chairs the defence committee which organised public awareness and raised funds to fight the case, promised he would “be part of a campaign to run Sardo for office when this case is finally over.”

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