Candidates running for state offices may soon have one less hurdle to jump to get their names on the ballot.
Under two proposed state House bills, direct primaries would replace nominating conventions in state elections, making it easier for people to run for office.
Bill 6697, proposed by Gov. John G. Rowland in his January State of the State address, would allow any eligible candidate to submit a petition with signatures from a certain percentage of registered party voters to earn a spot on a September statewide party primary beginning Jan. 1, 2002. The bill calls for different standards and thresholds for each political office, said Dean Pagani, Rowland’s press secretary.
The current state primary laws require all candidates running for state offices to receive at least 15 percent of delegates’ votes at their party’s endorsement convention before they can consider petitioning voters.
Under the proposed law, candidates for statewide offices could bypass the convention and earn a spot on a primary ballot by gathering signatures from two percent of registered party members.
The direct primary proposal in Connecticut is nothing new. Bills recommending the establishment of direct primaries have surfaced every few years but have never made it into the books.
“The legislators were reluctant to allow their opponents to petition,” said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz ’83, who sponsored the 1996 bill which inspired Rowland’s proposed legislation when she was state representative. “They also claimed that it weakens the parties.”
But Bysiewicz said direct primaries encourage people to register with parties in order to vote and they allow more candidates to have access to the ballot.
“Connecticut has one of the most restrictive ballot accesses in the country,” Bysiewicz said.
Because of Connecticut’s strong two-party system, the convention system has survived. Most other states allow candidates to pay a filing fee or submit a petition with a certain number of signatures to earn a place on the primary ballot. Bysiewicz said that only New York has stricter ballot access.
A very similar bill, 6848, proposes holding the primary in June instead.
“If you compare the two bills, they are almost identical, except for the date,” said David Larkin, committee clerk for the Connecticut House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Administration and Elections.
The current bills differ from past attempts to institute direct primaries statewide because both aim to increase the number of legislative candidates. In 2000, 71 of 187 Connecticut legislative races involved only one major party candidate.
But the dearth of candidates is not necessarily related to the lack of direct primaries.
“The lack of candidates comes from campaign finance laws and the cost of running a political campaign,” Bysiewicz said.
A strong economy and fears of public and media scrutiny also can discourage potential candidates from entering politics.
New Haven, like all Connecticut municipalities, currently employs a direct primary system. Candidates not endorsed through a convention have the opportunity to petition five percent of the specific party’s registered voters.
Sharon Farucci, the Democratic registrar of voters in New Haven, said with approximately 1,500 registered Democrats residing in Ward 1, aldermanic candidates hoping to mount a primary challenge would need a minimum of 75 signatures.
Farucci said she supports the elimination of the dual primary system at the state level in favor of having just direct primaries.
“Primaries generate excitement in all elections,” Farucci said. “Look at citywide primaries for mayor. They generate excitement throughout the wards and encourage more people to run.”
In early February, the house referred both bills to its Committee on Government Administration and Elections. On Wednesday, the committee held a public hearing for bill 6848, which endorses a June primary.
Rae Tramontano, president of the Registrars of Voters of Connecticut, said the only main complaint against the bill at the public hearing was the three day deadline for validating candidates’ petitions.
“It would be tough to verify them in three days, especially if they hold the petitions until the last minute to make a political statement,” Tramontano said.
The committee must vote on both bills by April 9.