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McCotter Joins Sorry, Brief List Of Incumbents Who Fell Short Of Ballot

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) had the misfortune of being from a state that still requires signatures to get on the ballot.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) had the misfortune of being from a state that still requires signatures to get on the ballot.

In the annals of incumbents failing to get on the ballot, Rep. Thad McCotter's epic fail has some company. Maybe not lots of it since incumbents tend to know, if nothing else, how to work the levers in their favor.

But there have been other incumbents derailed by the requirement to obtain voter signatures to get on ballots even if you sometimes have to go back quite a ways to find them. If it's a wing in the political hall of shame for incumbents, it would be a small room compared, say, to the much larger one for convicted politicos.

As has been widely reported, the Michigan Republican and one-time presidential candidate, failed to get the requisite 1,000 signatures needed to secure a place on the Aug. 7 primary ballot. State election officials determined that only 244 of the 1,834 signatures McCotter submitted were valid.

Among the problems with many of the others was that they were photocopied. A criminal investigation is underway as is McCotter's attempt to hang onto his seat through a write-in campaign.

McCotter's travails resemble those of former Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams.

In 2002, Williams' campaign caused many a jaw to drop around the nation when it accomplish the routine task of getting 2,000 valid signatures to put the incumbent mayor back on the ballot.

Not that the campaign didn't try. It submitted petitions with more than 10,000 signatures.

Unfortunately for Williams, a watchdog group challenged his petitions and election officials found them to be filled with so many forgeries and other defects that the mayor couldn't even reach the relatively modest threshold. So a big-city mayor was forced into the humiliating and virtually unheard of situation of waging a write-in campaign. He won, perhaps giving McCotter something to hold onto, although "Williams" is a lot easier for voters to spell correctly than "McCotter."

The road to the White House can be paved with bad nominating petitions. In a story well known in Chicago political circles, President Obama's Illinois political career began when he challenged the names on the petitions of an incumbent state senator named Alice Palmer. It turned out many of her signatures found to be invalid.

After she was denied a spot on the ballot, Obama went on to win her seat which he used, improbably, as a springboard to the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps, the bar of a thousand or two thousand signatures to get on a ballot is too high, you might say.

Apparently, many states agree. Unfortunately for McCotter and Williams, they weren't running in those jurisdictions.

Richard Winger, one of the nation's top experts on ballot access, told me in an interview that most states actually make it fairly easy to get on the ballot.

"In the majority of states candidates get on the ballot with no petition at all. They just pay a filing fee.

Of course, as Winger notes, even a simple filing fee can be too much for some campaigns to get right. Back in 1984, he says, the check used to pay presidential candidate Jesse Jackson's West Virginia filing fee bounced. State officials let him write a new check even though it was past the deadline, says Winger.

"Thirty-one states require no petition at all and then there's quite a few that require a very small number. There's about five or six states where the number of signatures is so tiny, like in Hawaii, it's 25 for statewide office and U.S. House. In Tennessee it's 25 for all offices. In California it's 40 for district office and 65 for statewide (office.) So those states are almost like having no petition (requirement.)

Sixty five signatures in California. You would think that would be a breeze, right? Think again.

Winger relates the following about a state official who was running for re-election:

"Even in California, our superintendent of public instruction, a statewide office, Wilson Riles, messed up getting the 65 ballot signatures. The court just excused it. They said 'Oh, he was substantially in compliance. He was close enough.' That was 1978."

What's so difficult about getting a few signatures? Winger has firsthand experience.

"Even a small petition is harder than people realize. I remember once in 1976 anyone who volunteered to get 100 signatures to get the Libertarian presidential candidate on the ballot in California got a free subscription for a year to Libertarian Review. So I thought 'I can do that.' I was shocked by how hard it was. It took me a month.

"I'd go out to the movie line of the movie theater in my neighborhood and then the manager comes out and tells me to get off the sidewalk. Well, I refused because I knew I was within my rights. Nevertheless, everybody in line heard that, and then thought I was a bad person and wouldn't sign. It's psychologically hard, kind of like hitchhiking. You're asking strangers for a favor. It's psychologically uncomfortable."

That may explain why some people who circulate petitions wind up making up names and the like. That's definitely the path of least resistance.

But election officials routinely check the signatures as they did in Michigan with McCotter's petitions. And forging or inventing names on ballot petitions is a crime.

The better course for politicians who'd prefer to avoid the signature chase altogether might be to move to one of the 31 states without petition requirements.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.