A state election board in Michigan has refused to certify a new political party called The Tea Party for the November election ballot. But the push to block ballot access for this Tea Party came from members of the Tea Party movement in Michigan. They allege the whole thing was part of a plan hatched by Democrats.
It is one of several places around the country this year where potential third-party movements are looking to capture votes of discontented independents.
The petitions contained nearly 60,000 signatures — far more than the required 38,000. Except nobody affiliated with the Tea Party movement in the state had even heard of the plan to field a slate of candidates under the Tea Party name in November.
Splitting The Vote
Ken Mitts of Kalamazoo says a new political party is not something that real Tea Partiers want.
"What it does is it splits the Republican Party and it gives the Democrats more control over what's going on," Mitts said. "What we want to do is support candidates who follow the Constitution."
Stories emerged raising questions about who was behind the petitions to get the Tea Party party on the ballot. There were accusations of political mischief-making in order to confuse voters and siphon votes from Republicans in close state legislative and congressional races. Then, over the weekend, an official with the Democratic Party's Oakland County branch in suburban Detroit resigned his post after it was learned that he had recruited candidates to run under the Tea Party banner. But both the Michigan and the Oakland County Democratic parties deny any connection to the Tea Party party.
Challenge To Petition
Against this backdrop, the Board of State Canvassers convened Monday to decide the validity of the new party's petition, and to hear a formal challenge.
"The fact that the petitions were not submitted to the secretary of state before circulation to get approval of petitions, the fact that several of the candidates were nominated and didn't even know there was a convention — some of the candidates aren't even residents of Michigan — and the fact that some of the candidates aren't even the age of majority shows that this is just an [artifice] and a hoax, and it's meant to bring more disdain for the political process," said attorney John Pirich, who represents what he called the real Tea Party movement.
Tea Party activists from across the state spoke at the hearing, arguing that their movement had been hijacked.
"None of you would help your child cheat on an exam, and I'm sure none of you would let your family and friends participate in a Ponzi scheme," said activist Dianne Ruhlandt. "Doing the right thing in the political world should not be any different than doing the the right thing in our homes and at work."
Along Party Lines
On the other side, attorney Michael Hodges represented the group trying to get onto the ballot. He was the only person at the hearing to speak in support of the petition. He said the group had earned its spot on the ballot legally.
"No one has complained about the sufficiency of the signatures, and no one filed a challenge to the signatures," Hodges said.
But the Board of State Canvassers also looked at potential technical violations regarding the petition. The name of the party wasn't set in the required 24-point type, and on some petitions the word "The" before the words "Tea Party" was absent.
There are four members on the board: two Democrats and two Republicans who split along party lines. Because a majority is needed, the so-called Tea Party party was denied a spot on the ballot.
But an appeal will be filed within days, and the state Supreme Court is expected to get the case within weeks.
Ballot access controversies are hardly new. Attempts to field spoiler, minor-party candidates have a long history. But this year there may be added incentive because of voter discontent with both major parties.
Richard Winger, who publishes a newsletter called Ballot-Access News, says independent voters are worth watching closely.
"When times are bad, people are more interested in getting outside their normal habits," he said.
And, Winger says, Michigan's Tea Party controversy aside, it could be the best year for independent candidates and third parties in many decades.