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Bait-and-Switch Ballots

October 11, 2002

Wait a minute! Yet another U.S. Senate candidate, this time a Montana Republican facing poor polling numbers, has withdrawn deep in the race. Silly us. We thought the election was Nov. 5. This may save concession speech time on election night, but it's disturbing because that state party could try to substitute a more popular candidate, as New Jersey Democrats successfully did when their incumbent suffered from a scandal. As a democracy, we have filing deadlines. They vary by state, but all demand compliance.

New Jersey Democrats substituted a retired senator after the deadline, and the courts, confronting the possibility of a blank line on the ballot for an important office, approved. The New Jersey case seemed an aberration then.

Politically, it is tempting to change horses three weeks before likely defeat. Would some California Republicans like to slip former Mayor Richard Riordan into the gubernatorial contest today to replace the trailing Bill Simon Jr.? But that ignores rules and subverts citizen participation through the flawed but official primary process and absentee voting well underway.

Montana's Mike Taylor, Republican challenger to Sen. Max Baucus, blamed his sudden withdrawal on a new Democratic Party ad that Taylor and state human rights advocates said appealed to homophobes. Though Baucus, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, seemed vulnerable last year, Taylor, a state senator, trailed badly in recent polls, 54% to 35%. Montana's ballot deadline is long passed; write-ins may file up to 15 days before the election. Maneuvers such as last-minute dropouts and write-ins have effects beyond any immediate race. Lack of a candidate or the sudden appearance of a more popular one can drastically affect voter turnout and thus all races and referendums.

New technology should enable states to ponder later filing deadlines. Great, let's talk. But no party should be able to substitute candidates this late to seek a better result. For now, let's apply the same rules to everyone.

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