Getting on the Ballot Should Be the Easy Part for Hopefuls

by Stuart Rothenberg July 20, 2006 · 12:01 AM EDT

I’ve been writing about House and Senate campaigns and elections for more than 25 years, and I don’t think I can recall an election cycle in which so many candidates failed to qualify for the ballot because they did not submit the requisite number of signatures.

Let’s be brutally honest: You have to be running a pretty inept campaign if you can’t get on most ballots. It’s not brain surgery. Yet this cycle, a number of supposedly credible political candidates did just that.

Ohio Democrat Charlie Wilson became the poster boy for ineptitude when he failed to submit 50 (yes, 50!) qualified signatures to secure a spot on Ohio’s 6th district Democratic primary ballot. Too many of his signatures came from outside the Congressional district, so Wilson had to become the Democratic nominee for Congress through an expensive write-in campaign.

But I’ve beaten up on Wilson enough for that faux pas — and he already has acknowledged his blunder — so let’s cut him some slack and turn to others.

What the heck was Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman thinking?

Holtzman spent almost $2.5 million, including more than $500,000 from his own pocket, but failed to qualify for the primary ballot because he did not submit enough valid signatures from each of the state’s seven Congressional districts.

I remember interviewing Holtzman when he ran for Congress in 1986 in Pennsylvania. He was a 25-year-old kid from a wealthy Northeast Pennsylvania family with an inflated opinion of his accomplishments and political appeal. Apparently, little has changed in that regard.

Holtzman certainly was energetic and politically committed in his bid for the House of Representatives. He spent more than $1.3 million in that race — an enormous sum in 1986, much of it raised from contacts made when he ran the 1980 Pennsylvania campaign for Ronald Reagan, and, later, when he served as executive director of Citizens for America.

Holtzman put $404,000 of his own money into that campaign — not bad for a 25 year old who was just three years out of Lehigh University. The result? He drew 29.4 percent of the vote and lost to then-freshman Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D).

After he moved to Colorado, he was appointed secretary of technology, a new state position, by Gov. Bill Owens (R). Holtzman had his eye on the top post at Colorado State University, but he didn’t make the final cut. Shortly after that he was appointed president of the University of Denver, even though he lacked the academic credentials and professional experience for the job.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Holtzman didn’t qualify for the ballot in Colorado.

Then there is Dave Loebsack, the Democratic nominee against Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).

Loebsack announced his candidacy in late August, more than nine months before the June 6 Democratic primary. You might have figured that the Cornell College political science professor would have enough time to put together an organization that could collect the required signatures.

But no, Loebsack’s nominating petitions came up short in two counties. State Democratic Party leaders eventually nominated him to take on Leach at the April district convention.

The Associated Press quoted Loebsack as saying, “I am encouraged by the overwhelming response I am getting to my message of new priorities and real leadership.”

I understand that politicians say really stupid things all the time, but this guy is also a college professor. He’s supposed to teach students about government and politics, both in class and, I would hope, through his campaign. Instead, he fails to get enough signatures and then sounds like he’s out of touch with reality. If you are a parent who is thinking of sending your kid to Cornell College, are you going to put him or her in the hands of this guy?

Moving back over to the GOP side, we have Jerry Zandstra, a minister and program director at a conservative think tank who ran for Michigan’s Republican Senate nomination.

Every few days, my office was bombarded by another over-the-top, completely unbelievable press release from Zandstra’s campaign, hyping another questionable poll or quoting someone about Zandstra’s alleged “move” in the polls.

Through March, Zandstra had raised almost $240,000 from individuals for his campaign, plus another $215,000 of his own money. In late May, however, the Michigan secretary of state’s office announced that Zandstra’s campaign appeared to turn in fewer than the 15,000 valid signatures required to qualify for the primary ballot.

In early June, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers ruled the hopeful had come up 712 valid signatures short of the mark.

I won’t even go into the strange case of Steve Stockman, the former one-term Republican Congressman from Texas who sought to run as an Independent this year in Texas’ 22nd district. Let’s just say that Stockman did not submit the 500 valid signatures needed for him to make the ballot.

I can’t be sure that we’ve had more allegedly serious candidates thrown off the ballot this cycle than in the past, but it sure feels that way to me. I’m not sure why it’s happening. But I do know this: There is no reason to have any sympathy for political hopefuls who enter races months before filing deadlines yet don’t collect the required number of signatures to make the ballot. It’s their contributors and volunteers who deserve our sympathy.