It’s not “good government” to keep candidates from running for office.
Posted: March 21, 2017|Category: Rights of Candidates Category: Voting Rights
Our right to vote means little if the government imposes undue restrictions on who can run for office. Lately, we've witnessed a troubling trend to this effect. Earlier this week, we raised concerns about a proposal to bar candidates from running for office if they owed election fines. Now, the House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would require Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates to publicly disclose their federal tax returns in order to appear on the election ballot in Rhode Island. Because we believe that the burdens on qualifying for the ballot should be as minimal as possible, this requirement sets a troubling precedent and is poor policy.
In order to get on Rhode Island’s ballot, should Presidential candidates be required to disclose records regarding their physical and mental health -- information that is potentially even more important regarding their ability to serve? Would supporters of this legislation also have considered it appropriate in 2008 to adopt a state law requiring as a condition of appearing on the ballot that Presidential candidates submit a notarized copy of their birth certificate? After all, citizenship – unlike tax return information – is a Constitutional requirement for the office.
In 2013, the General Assembly added Rhode Island to the list of states that have joined the National Popular Vote compact. The compact provides that election officials in all states participating in the plan would award their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who receives the largest number of popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The ACLU supported the legislation as furthering core principles of democracy and the concept of “one person-one vote.” Yet a bill like this undermines those goals if some candidates are barred in certain states from getting any votes in the first place based on the decision to keep confidential a document that is generally considered confidential.
Keeping candidates off the ballot for this reason can also have a delegitimizing effect on election results. There will always be questions about the true outcome of the election – whether in terms of the popular vote or electoral college vote – if a candidate decided not to release this information and was therefore precluded from running in some states.
While we fully understand why disclosure of this information would be useful, that should not be a standard for determining who gets to run for President or Vice-President – or state legislator or any other office where disclosure of tax return information could be deemed just as useful. If people don't care, however misguidedly, what is in their candidate's tax return when deciding whom to vote for, so be it. Those who DO care can make their opposing views known on Election Day as well. Ultimately, the debate over a candidate's refusal to release personal tax information should be fought on the campaign trail, not serve as a disqualifier for running for office.
The ACLU of RI believes that the burdens on qualifying for the ballot should be as minimal as possible, which is why we have opposed in the past onerous signature requirements, disqualifications based on past criminal history, and similar obstacles to running for office.