Barriers to Entry

Who defines “legible” and “printed?” They sound like dumb questions, perhaps one only a bureaucrat in an overgrown government agency would ever need to answer.

But when the answer to that question can be the difference between a candidate getting on the ballot or finding him/herself relegated to write-in purgatory, it’s an important question – and thanks to new law and an overly zealous application of the law by the Government Accountability Board, it’s one we’re actually asking.

Gov. Walker signed into law a bill with new requirements for such petition signatures, and now the GAB is interpreting the law to mean that names must be both printed and legible. Whether the GAB is going too far in applying the law or the law is sloppy and needs to be amended doesn’t matter.

The AP elaborates, citing examples of legitimate candidates having signatures invalidated on technicalities. Reid Magney of the GAB comments, “Our interpretation is that to qualify, a name must be both printed and legible…Cursive handwriting, no matter how legible, is not printed.”

That’s stupid. So via the candidate and their volunteers the GAB is telling people what kind of handwriting to use in order for their signature to matter, all because of an absolutely asinine distinction between cursive and print that’s only in place because some paperwork pusher spent most of grade school English in a dunce cap?

“If you can make out the name, who cares if it’s squiggly?” said State Senate candidate Barry Nelson. Now there’s a guy who makes sense.

But this is all about more than politico inside baseball or just whether someone wasted their time signing the nomination sheet, or the volunteer circulating it was insufficiently fascist. It’s about democracy.

Signing a nomination paper is serious business. You’re putting your opinion into action, taking a small step in supporting a candidate, saying you support their right to be on the ballot. A candidate who doesn’t get their name on the ballot faces very long odds – rarely do write-in campaigns work – and that can mean uncontested incumbents. Uncontested races mean voters have no choice.

Each new hurdle put before a prospective candidate hurts democracy, whether that’s the task of collecting a ridiculously large number of signatures using the same methods as during the Lucey administration, perfunctory and byzantine rules for what kinds of signatures are valid, or even campaign finance limitations that make the candidacies of people who can’t self-finance, don’t come from an extensive network of monied friends, or can’t afford a campaign manager even longer long-shots.

In economics, factors stopping a new business from entering a particular market are called barriers to market entry. That includes dense webs of red tape, rules, and regulations that necessitate the hiring of lawyers, accountants, endless paperwork – all before the first doo-dad is ever sold or invoice sent. Many of those barriers are established by government, often encouraged by the lobbies of the corporations entrenched and dominant in those markets.

Competition sucks, after all. A monopoly is much easier; it’s job security. And if you already have staff – lawyers, accountants, and so on – you can handle new rules with one phone call to the fifth floor.

The same is true in politics. Byzantine rules stifle the democratic process, increase the risk to citizens considering sticking their neck out to run, and sometimes even disqualify those who have already taken the first steps.

Democracy, like the free market, is about choice. Ridiculous rules that disqualify a perfectly valid signature because its serifs are linked in cursive cut down on choice and invalidate citizens’ democratic right to opine. Let’s de-regulate, starting with streamlining campaign rules.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.