ATTENTION Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, and other potential third-party or independent candidates for president: If you're going to do it, you'd better start soon. Playing coy may be fun, but today it's harder than ever to run for the White House if you're not the Republican or Democratic nominee.
Ballot access laws are a big reason why. Independent presidential candidates now need to collect at least 14 times as many petition signatures as major party counterparts to get their names on ballots nationwide.
It's a trend that's affecting all electoral levels. At a time when Americans are expressing unprecedented interest in independent politics, Republicans and Democrats have joined together in many states to make ballot access more difficult for third-party candidates up and down the slate, from governor to alderman.
"Access was slowly getting easier over the last 10 years, until this year. Then everything went into reverse," says Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, a San Francisco-based newsletter.
The legislatures of 13 states considered ballot-access bills judged "hostile" by Mr. Winger this year. Four passed. New Mexico, for instance, doubled the number of signatures minor party candidates need to qualify for ballots, to 1 percent of the state's last general election vote.
The Perot factor
Call it the Perot Factor. Mr. Perot's vote-drawing success in the 1992 elections worried many Democratic and Republican party officials. Now the tiny Texas billionaire and his United We Stand America followers are weighing whether to form a full-blown third party. That threatens state-level incumbents from the major parties - perhaps causing them to look for ways of protecting their jobs.
"Whenever there has been a third- party threat - such as now with Perot or with George Wallace in the late '60s - many states pass laws making ballot access more difficult," says Clarence Evjen, an official with the Natural Law Party, a small political organization based in Fairfield, Iowa.
Hurdles to third-party political participation in America were already considerable. According to figures compiled by Ballot Access News, a Democratic candidate for president needs to collect 25,500 signatures to get on the ballot in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. A Republican needs 49,250. A third-party candidate needs 718,881.
If a fledgling United We Stand America party decides to put up candidates for the United States House of Representatives, it would need to collect 1.6 million signatures nationwide. The big two parties, by way of contrast, need collect only about 140,000.
So what? We're only talking about signatures here. Surely a few weekends in supermarket parking lots can pull in lots of names, for any potential candidate.
Not really. The collection of valid voter John Hancocks is a serious and expensive concern in American politics. Consider the case of the Libertarians. Notwithstanding Ross Perot, they're the closest thing to a real third party that exists in the US today, having run 660 candidates in various elections in 1994.
"Most small parties don't have enough people to go out and collect all these signatures on a volunteer basis," says Bill Winter, a Libertarian Party spokesman.
They have to pay professional collectors, instead. That's expensive - typically, about a dollar per signature. In other words, if you want to run for president in all 50 states and it will cost you about $700,000, before you pay for TV ads, polls, consultants, and image-enhancing flannel-based clothing.
"That is essentially a tax on third parties," says Mr. Winter, who notes that Perot was outspoken on the issue in 1992. "If these laws are so bad that a man with $3 billion has to complain about them, what about less well-funded parties?"
Nor are signatures the only issue. Third-party activists complain of a host of other barriers, from the major to the minor. Many states force third-party and independent candidates to file for office much earlier than Democrats or Republicans, for instance.
Not all political analysts think this state of affairs is such a bad thing. By making the entry threshold for third parties relatively high, the US may avoid the fate of other democracies where parties splinter, and splinter again, creating cacophonous legislative gridlock.
As it stands, the Democratic and Republican parties act as a kind of filter, presenting voters with a limited number of candidates whose party affiliation acts as a shorthand identification of their beliefs. "There's a great deal of merit to the two-party system in its simplification of alternatives," says William Keefe, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Whither Colin Powell?
What does all this mean for, say, Colin Powell? The retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs appears to be seriously considering some sort of political future. He remains coy in the face of supporter entreaties, neither discouraging them nor giving any indication he will definitely jump into the Oval Office race.
It means he should remember that talking about running for president outside of the two-party system is far easier than actually doing it. A man as well-known and respected as Mr. Powell could probably still mount a credible campaign - but times' a wastin'.
"Every day he waits makes it more unlikely that he will be able to get on the ballot in all 50 states," says the Libertarian Party's Bill Winter.