Punishing Nonconformism

Ellen Berman, the Socialist candidate for Governor, faced 40 people and one reporter in a church basement Sunday night and described a grievance that deserves attention even from people who disagree with her political views.

While 10,000 registered voters' signatures can secure ballot status for the most bumbling of Republican gubernatorial candidates, the Massachusetts Election Commission required her to collect 40,000 as a third-party candidate. She failed to do so, and was disqualified.

This is hardly grounds to dismiss her party's legitimacy, since Republican candidate Gregory S. Hyatt felt obliged to forge signatures in order to meet one-quarter of that requirement.

Berman deserves better as a citizen of this country than to have her duties as a candidate quadrupled as the price of nonconformism.

Eighth Congressional District candidate Jon Hillson, also a Socialist Workers' Party member, still has a chance of attaining the November ballot as a third-party candidate. He said he will submit 8200 district voters' signatures--well over the minimum of 3400--to Massachusetts election authorities on July 29. Members of the two major parties need submit only 2000 signatures for that race.


The list of people and organizations who want to put Hillson on the ballot prove that this is not solely a Socialist cause, but an issue for anyone in this district who cares about democracy. The roster includes all of Hillson's major opponents; John Roberts, the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union's executive director; distinguished professors George Wald and Noam Chomsky; the National Organization for Women; plus a slew of local union presidents, pastors, and social-change organizations.

Massachusetts' political realities currently support a one-party or perhaps a party-and-a-half system. Only the historically powerful Democratic Party seems able to carry on its business without absurd blunders that leave it more of a laughingstock than a political force.

In the Eighth District, any politico will tell you that the race is over on September 16, the day of the Democratic primary election. The polls have stopped even mentioning the two remaining Republican candidates. It is a one-party election, anathema to self-righteous critics of Third World governments.

The only conflict between legitimized candidates smolders but rarely flames between Joe Kennedy, a "moderate," and the two "progressive" Democratic runners-up, who fault Kennedy for his ambiguous stance on issues such as Central America, South Africa, the death penalty, and abortion.

Nationally, the Republicans and Democrats are moving closer together and farther to the right. Even those who dread the influence a legitimized Socialist party could wield must agree that voters are effectively disenfranchised if the candidates they are asked to choose from offer few genuine differences.

Many may argue that opening the electoral process to third-party candidates would benefit fringe extremists like the followers of former Presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, who won places on the ballot for state offices in the Illinois primary early this spring.

Since then, Adlai Stevenson III, a bona fide Democrat who supports his party's platform--unlike the LaRoucheites--has chosen to withdraw from the ballot and attempt to run as a third-party candidate rather than carry these usurpers into office with him. The election laws are currently working against him in the same way that they confounded Berman.

As Berman observed on Sunday, LaRouche candidates won the Illinois primary partially because the media had ignored them as third-party candidates not worth their attention. Given greater exposure, their pathological fears of homosexuality, Britons, and Henry Kissinger would hardly have endeared them to the sane people of that state.

It is currently fashionable to blame political ills on the media, a trend that threatens the First Amendment and wrongly shifts the onus from politicians to their chroniclers and frequent adversaries. However, Hillson is right in observing ruefully that the news media decides which candidates are viable and ignores the rest, behavior hardly consistent with democratic ideals.

The meeting on Sunday was a perfect example. Although Hillson, Berman, Roberts, Eighth District Democrat Carla Johnston, and several other Boston activists were present, this is the only account of the event to appear in the nonpartisan press.

State Rep. William Galvin (D-Allston) observed as he left the Eighth Congressional District race that "the media can be fair or they can be interesting" -- they can give equal time to each candidate, or they can feature those with quotable speeches and photogenic looks, assuming that their audience will not be interested in the others. Many journalists underestimate their audiences and the people--accustomed to being underestimated--learn to expect simplistic coverage for lack of experience with genuinely democratic consideration of issues and people.

As usual, ignorance is more of an enemy than openness.

Based on past experience, Hillson says he still expects to be excluded from the ballot. He compares U.S. election law unfavorably with that of Nicaragua. Even those who disagree with Hillson's politics should defend his place on the ballot, because their own civil rights will be endangered if his are denied.

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