John Conyers, independent from Michigan? Photographer: Gary Malerba/Bloomberg News
John Conyers, independent from Michigan? Photographer: Gary Malerba/Bloomberg News

A Michigan county clerk ruled this week that John Conyers, who has served 49 years in Congress, is ineligible to appear on the November general election ballot as a Democrat because unregistered voters collected most of his ballot petition signatures. If Conyers loses his appeal, he says he intends to run as an independent or mount a write-in campaign.

Let’s leave aside the questions of how such a veteran could make such a rookie mistake and why only registered voters are legally permitted to carry petitions -- a law that the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging. A more fundamental question ought to be asked: What public purpose is served by a state law that effectively closes down access to the ballot six months before the election?

In most democracies, election seasons are fairly brief. Our Canadian neighbors have never experienced an election campaign that lasted more than 74 days. In Europe and Australia, campaigns typically last one or two months. In the U.S., they never end.

Americans occasionally bemoan the length of campaigns, usually laying the blame on the money chase, the media or the parties. All shoulder some of the blame. But what about the government?

During America’s first 100 years, governments had almost no role in regulating the ballot or limiting who could put their name forward in elections. Parties and party factions printed and distributed their own ballots. Campaigns often kicked off in September or October.

In the early days of the Progressive Era, state governments began passing laws regulating general election ballots in order to prevent fraud and reduce the power of party bosses. Eventually, states also began regulating the ballots that parties could use to conduct their nominations. In many cases, however, parties succeeded in formulating these laws to their own advantage by making it difficult for candidates without organizational support to get on the ballot.

Parties typically did this by imposing onerous and arcane petition-gathering requirements. But parties also discouraged internal competition by closing down the nominating process long before the general election. The earlier in the year a party holds its primary -- and the earlier that the qualifying period for the primary ballot ends -- the greater the advantage held by the best-organized candidates. It’s a system tailor-made for incumbents and party favorites.

In Illinois, no stranger to strong party organizations, candidates hoping to win in November 2014 had to submit qualifying signatures for the party primary by Dec. 2, 2013 -- 11 months in advance! In Texas, it was a week later. In D.C., it was Jan. 2. (Who doesn’t love collecting signatures during the holidays?)

For the 2014 elections, more than half the states have filing deadlines before April 1, seven months before the general election. And in many cases, the filing deadline occurs three to five months before the primary election -- longer than the entirety of most countries’ election seasons. How long does it take to print ballots?

Early primary deadlines and elections make it easier for party leaders to dispense with internal competition so that they can focus resources on the general election. That benefits the party organization, but it hurts party members who wish to mount campaigns without the leaders’ blessing -- and the voters who wish to have more options.

For voters, the damaging effects of these laws are slightly mitigated when they can choose between two viable candidates in the general election. But that is all too rare. And as more and more of the country is gerrymandered into districts dominated by one party, more and more elections are decided in primaries in which government regulations heavily favor incumbents.

Conservatives who dislike regulations that inhibit free competition, and liberals who dislike laws that discourage electoral participation, ought to be able to find common cause on this issue. But they won’t find much support from incumbent officeholders. Except maybe from John Conyers.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.