Florida’s highest court ruled Friday that independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader must be allowed to compete in the 2004 election in the state, delivering a possible boost to President Bush’s re-election chances.
The state Supreme Court ruled 6-1 on a challenge by the Democratic Party against Nader’s being included on ballots on the ground that his Reform Party was not a genuine national political organization.
The court said Florida law was not clear enough to merit refusing Nader access to the ballot.
“In making our decision in this case, we are guided by the overriding constitutional principle in favor of ballot access,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.
The court said that the Florida Legislature had not clearly defined what constituted a “national party” or a “national convention” and that “we have been unable to ascertain whether the legislature intended for these terms to have a strict or broad interpretation.”
“In the absence of more specific statutory criteria or guidance from the legislature, we are unable to conclude that a statutory violation occurred,” the court said.
“The anti-Democratic Party should stop trying to limit voter choices through harassment and legal technicalities and start debating the issues,” Nader said in a statement after the ruling and a similar decision Friday in Colorado.
Good news for Bush?
The decision could be regarded as good news for Bush.
Nader was a Green Party candidate in 2000 when Bush won Florida by 537 votes to clinch the White House, but he was spurned by the party this year.
He won the endorsement of the Reform Party, which is on the ballot in a handful of states. Analysts said most of Nader’s nearly 98,000 Florida votes in 2000 would have gone to Democrat Al Gore had Nader not been on the ballot.
Polls show that the 2004 presidential race is again close.
Lawyer Laurence Tribe argued for the Democrats that Nader was campaigning as an independent in other states and should have done the same in Florida.
“He could have easily said, as he has done in most states, ‘I’ll be an independent. I’ll get petitions,’” said Tribe, a professor of constitutional law.
The Democrats and independent electoral watchdog groups that joined the challenge against Nader said the Reform Party did not have enough members or an active recruitment program in Florida to qualify as a national political party. They said it was being backed by Republicans as a spoiler to erode support for Democratic candidate John Kerry.
The Reform Party says the challenge represented a desperate attempt to cling to a two-party electoral system.
Nader’s attorney, Ken Sukhia, told the high court that although Reform Party numbers were down significantly from its heyday under the leadership of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, it remained a viable political organization that included Libertarians and Greens.
“There is no minor party in this country that is consistently active in elections in every state,” he said.
The Supreme Court ruled out a new hearing on the issue before its judges.
The decision will allow the state to mail around 25,000 absentee ballots for overseas voters by a weekend deadline.
The battle over Nader’s inclusion on this year’s ballot in Florida, a state run by the president’s brother Gov. Jeb Bush, has seen a flurry of legal wrangling.
Last week, Circuit Judge Kevin Davey ruled that the Reform Party no longer qualified as a national political party, a decision Nader and Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood appealed. The Supreme Court decision overturned Davey’s ruling.
Rulings in Colorado, N.M.
Nader and his running mate, Peter Miguel Camejo, are on the ballot in 36 U.S. states, but the ticket is being challenged in court in eight of them. As deadlines to complete ballots approached, several judicial rulings came Friday.
In Denver, Nader won the right Friday, the deadline to print ballots, to be on the ballot in Colorado.
A judge denied Colorado Democrats’ arguments that Nader should be thrown off because the Reform Party failed to decide in an open meeting who its representatives would be to the Electoral College.
But in New Mexico, a state judge blocked Nader from appearing on the ballot as an independent.
District Judge Wendy York ruled that Nader did not qualify because he was running as the nominee for minor parties in other states, including the Reform Party. State elections law, however, defines an independent as someone not affiliated with a political party.