Defending the Ballot Box
August 15, 2022
On a sweltering spring day in April, I found myself signing a petition at an arts and crafts festival. I initially noticed the gentleman out of the corner of my eye as I pushed my son’s stroller—struggling in the sticky North Carolina heat. Having done plenty of canvassing in my life, I saved him the trouble of approaching me and went to him. He informed me that he was collecting signatures to get the Green Party on the ballot in November.
As someone who believes in broadening our democratic institutions, I didn’t give signing a second thought. I went about my day and assumed that would be the last time I thought about the Green Party or the petition until at least the midterm elections. Unfortunately, I would not be so lucky. June 25th, the day after the Dobbs decision, I received a text from someone named Drew. Now, to this day I know very little about Drew. For all I know his name really isn’t Drew, but what I do know is he asked whether I signed the petition for the Green Party.
Once he learned that I had, he asked me to remove my name from it, arguing that the upcoming election was far too important to risk losing. I kindly declined his request, having heard that argument countless times before in defense of voting blue no matter who. Taken back a bit, but still not entirely unsurprised, I thought that had to be the end of it. Sadly, I was mistaken.
The next day someone came to my door claiming to represent the State Board of Elections.
This young woman went through the same talking points as her friend Drew. Hammering the point home with no sense of irony that if the Greens were not kept off the ballot our fraught democracy was in danger.
My reply was simple. I asked why the Democratic Party was concerned with a party that garnered 0.2% of the vote in 2020. If they really believed that their margin of victory was that small then they would have much bigger problems than Matthew Hoh running for Senate on the Green Party ticket. However, I don’t think that was ever truly what concerned them.
The Left and the Democratic Party
Rather, much like a lot of Democratic tactics, it is an act of inaction that gives the illusion of action. No matter the outcome in November, they can say that they tried to keep the pesky Greens from spoiling the election. It will be inconsequential whether that is true or not because it will still have the forgone effect of keeping the Democratic base from reevaluating the national strategy of their representatives.
When there is an outside enemy, it is easy to blame anyone but yourself. This seeming lack of self-awareness gets to the crux of the matter. The Democratic Party is not the left and the left so much as it exists is not the Democratic Party. While there has been an uneasy, unstated, and ongoing Popular Front with liberalism as an independent left stumbled on to its own two feet, this period of relative peace is coming to an end during the Biden administration.
The complete inadequacy of the administration’s response to rolling crises in the economy, the climate, and public health has forced many fence-sitters to take a side. Will they simply be nostalgic New Deal Democrats, or will they support socialism vocally and unequivocally? To this end, the answer to that question seems to align most closely with what role you see the Democratic Party in the left’s electoral strategy and your commitment to using the Democrats as a means to achieve socialist ends.
As a Southerner, I am personally more skeptical about whether using the Democratic Party can be done effectively even on a local level because of the racist and faux-progressive legacy of the Dixiecrats and business-first neoliberal Democrats. That said, I am by no means an absolutist, and the question of using the ballot line should be taken up on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, the left should always stress its independence from the Democratic Party and the fight for greater democracy, including in terms of ballot access for third parties.
Fighting for Independent Electoral Terrain
I make this argument not because I think that the revolution is around the corner with the Green Party as the vanguard against the “social fascist” Democrats. Rather, it is because of the way that the machinations of the Democratic Party to limit access to the ballot, it sets precedent and limits electoral terrain for the future.
Under North Carolina law, the state requires 13,865 signatures for ballot access. In this case, 15,876 of more than 22,000 signatures were validated by county boards, the rest thrown out, a common occurrence, which is why organizers typically aim for higher than the minimum barrier to entry. Despite surpassing the required threshold by more than two thousand signatures, the Board of Elections (BOE) has opted to keep the Greens off the ballot.
Luckily, the Green Party has not taken this lying down. Marshaling the testimony of people like myself, they have filed a legal complaint against the BOE, citing the intimidation campaign as a concerted effort to disenfranchise Green voters. As of August 8, a Federal judge has ruled that the Greens will be on the ballot after their battle with the board. This is no small victory, and they should be congratulated for their efforts, but a court order will not tip the scales in their favor on election day. At this point, you may be wondering if you don’t believe they can win, then why do you care?
In short, it is a question of both pragmatism and principle. When I look around there are often few reasons to even hold onto a glimmer of hope, but one of them is a labor movement slowly but surely resurgent. Eventually, our aim should be for a socialist political organization to emerge from that movement, a position that long-time Green Party member and former Trotskyist Peter Camejo might have agreed with in the 1970s. This is a process that will take time, effort, and patience. And so, if we allow the Democratic and Republican Parties' monopoly over the electoral apparatus to be complete, then the space will not be there when there is an independent socialist movement. We will be incentivized to continue using the Democratic line long after it has outlived its usefulness.
Why Not the Greens?
The Green Party’s commitment to militant independence is something to be commended. They do not worry about the charges brought against them as spoiler candidates that liberals throw at them with bile and vigor. This kind of independence and political fortitude that socialists need to think consciously about if they are to ever break their dependence on the Democratic Party.
This does not mean that socialists should look to the eclectic Green Party for salvation. Indeed, more broadly, it makes no sense to call for a socialist Third-Party, at least when it comes to national politics when the conditions for its existence aren’t in place. A premature attempt to establish such a party could demobilize people who only find despair in continuing to run losing candidates in the long term. Creating the conditions for such an organization is a protracted project that will take a lot of failures, but one thing is certain we will not have a viable Third-Party just because we say we do.
Socialists need to focus on building organizations that build solidarity and goodwill, be it in the form of mutual aid or other public outreach. At the same time, this activity needs to be done in concert with the continued effort to revitalize a labor left. This does not mean giving up on electoral politics, although, for now, it perhaps makes sense to focus on local politics rather than the national scene.
This means we will still need to focus on protecting the ballot box. The liberal establishment and the Democratic Party often rightly highlight the efforts of the Republican Party to disenfranchise voters. These efforts must be opposed. However, the socialist left must be equally as forthright in its resistance to the Democratic Party's efforts to limit access to the ballot.