By Jordan Crews

Thursday, in Pisano v. Strach, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that North Carolina’s regulations on general elections ballots is constitutional.

Under North Carolina law, a new political party, in order to nominate candidates, must select its candidates by party convention and submit its nominees by July 1.  To qualify as a new party, the group must file petitions with the State Board of Elections on June 1 in the election year in which the group desires to participate.  A separate petition must be filed for each county in which the group gathers signatures.  The petitions must be signed by registered and qualified voters in North Carolina equal in number to two percent of the total number of voters who voted in the most recent election for Governor, with at least 200 signatures from each of at least four congressional districts.  A group must submit each petition for verification to the chairperson of the county board of elections in the county where the signatures were obtained by May 17.

Al Pisano, Nicholas Triplett, the North Carolina Constitution Party, and the North Carolina Green Party filed suit against the Director of the State Board of Elections, alleging that the May 17 deadline, together with the two percent signature requirement, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments because it severely burdened their “ability to field presidential candidates.”  The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and the plaintiffs appealed.

Election laws that impose a severe burden on ballot access are subject to strict scrutiny, and a court will uphold the restrictions only if they are “narrowly drawn to advance a state interest of compelling importance.”  However, “if a statute imposes only modest burdens, then a State’s important regulatory interests will usually be enough to justify reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions.”

The Fourth Circuit found that the North Carolina law imposed only modest burdens, so strict scrutiny analysis was inappropriate.  The Court noted that the laws contained many alleviating factors.  The law does not limit groups to a short time frame for gathering signatures, and the Court emphasized that political groups are on notice of the number of signatures they need to collect three and a half years before the deadline, providing “ample opportunity to collect signatures when voters are engaged, such as during primaries and other elections.”  For these reasons, the Court concluded that the burden on the plaintiffs was modest.  As such, it declined to apply strict scrutiny.

Applying the lesser demanding test, the Court simply needed to “balance the character and magnitude of the burdens imposed against the extent to which the regulations advance the state’s interest in ensuring that order, rather than chaos, is to accompany the democratic processes.”  North Carolina’s “asserted regulatory interests need only be sufficiently weighty to justify the limitation imposed on the plaintiffs’ rights.”  The Court concluded that North Carolina’s May 17 deadline was reasonable.  The deadline falls after the state’s May primary and precedes other important deadlines, such as the counties’ June 1 deadline to verify signatures.  The state also requires qualifying new parties to select their nominees by party convention and submit their names by July 1.  Thus, the deadlines “permit the government to verify signatures and prepare the ballot before the November election.”  The Court found that the May 17 deadline outweighed the modest burden imposed on the plaintiffs, and so held that the deadline was constitutional.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants’ was affirmed.