There was a time in American history, Chatham County resident Ed King wants us to know, when elections were chock full of different, often progressive ideas. And voter turnout was high–about 80 percent of the (admittedly quite limited) eligible adults voted in national elections, not the current 50 percent.

The time? 1876-1892. The reason? The proliferation of vigorous third parties with their own views on what the United States–then putting itself back together after the Civil War–ought to be.

Parties like the Farmers Party, the Greenback Party, the Union Labor Party, and the Peoples Party all sought to advance the interests of common folks or some subset of them. All hoped, if not to supplant one of the two major political parties (or, in the case of the South, the one political party–the Democrats), then at least to put pressure on the Democrats and Republicans to be more mindful of the masses and less solicitous of the rich.

So what happened? Well, in King’s view, ballot-access laws happened, and they killed third parties.

Until 1888, there were no ballot-access laws in the United States. In fact, there were no printed ballots, or at least not “officially” printed. Voters showed up at the polls with their own ballots, frequently ones supplied to them by one party or another. It didn’t matter if your ballot was “Democrat,” “Greenback” or your own concoction. You just dropped it in the box.

Spin the clock ahead one century-plus, and consider now what ballot-access laws have done to your choices in North Carolina. There are no third parties on the ballot. Rarely does anyone even run as an independent. (Even Ralph Nader couldn’t get on the N.C. ballot–either time.)

Indeed, in this year’s legislative elections, there’s only one candidate running, a Republican or a Democrat, in almost half of the Senate and House districts.

And why’s that? Because our two big parties have combined to enact a set of laws that effectively prevent anyone who’s not a “D” or “R” from getting on the ballot. (And they’ve divvied up the districts between them by drawing weird–that is, gerrymandered–boundary lines.) North Carolina’s ballot requirements are considered among the most stringent, if not the most stringent, in the country.

For a third party in North Carolina to get its candidates listed and their votes counted, it must collect almost 70,000 verified signatures from all over the state. Since “verified” means actual registered voters, and so many people aren’t registered but will tell you they are, the Libertarians in the past found they needed at least 100,000 signatures to make the North Carolina ballot–which they collected eight different times, only to be booted off after each succeeding election because they hadn’t gotten 10 percent of the total vote.

Well, they’re sick of it, so they’re suing the state on grounds that they are not receiving the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed to all citizens even if they’re not Democrats or Republicans.

But just in case the General Assembly would like to mend its ways, the Libertarians are joining forces with the Green Party (which has never gotten itself on the ballot), reform groups like the N.C. Public Interest Research Group (NC PIRG) and Democracy North Carolina, and a few interested citizens like Ed King in an effort to get the state’s ballot-access laws relaxed.

The newly formed N.C. Open Elections Coalition met in public for the first time Monday night in Raleigh, a gathering of some 35 people. They’re backing a reform measure, House Bill 88, that’s currently lodged in a Senate committee. The fact that the bill passed the House last year, however, is not good news to them. Before it did, House Democrats amended it to make it almost completely worthless; the coalition is hoping the Senate will return it to its original form, cutting the required number of signatures by 75 percent, and send it back to the House before the current legislative session ends.

Most states, the coalition notes, require 10,000 signatures or less for third parties or independent candidates. Nine allow either with 5,000 names or fewer.

“Iraq, right now, has more political parties to choose from than we do in North Carolina,” King said Monday night, laughing.

Added Warren Murphy, representing the centrist reform group Common Cause N.C.: “We’re for open, honest and effective government. This isn’t open, it isn’t honest, but it is effective–for the Democrats and Republicans.”

For information about HB 88 and the coalition, contact Hart Matthews, Green Party director, at 255-0189,; or Brian Irving, Libertarian Party, 987-5277,