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NASHVILLE — A bill seeking to make it easier for third-party candidates to appear on Tennessee election ballots under the Libertarian, Green or similar party banners is getting traction in the state House.

A measure to do that, House Bill 2580, cleared the Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee on a voice vote. The bill now goes to the Local Committee. It has yet to start moving in the Senate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, told colleagues that candidates from third parties now have to appear on the ballot as independents because Tennessee's signature requirements for including parties on ballots is high.

That's prompted critics, including the Libertarian and Green parties, to complain the process gives an advantage to the Tennessee Democratic and Republican parties.

Hulsey said his bill would slash the voter signature threshold, which he estimated is now around 56,000, down to 12,000 for a party to get listed by name on the ballot with its designee's name beside the party label. The exact requirement varies from election to election because it is pegged to 2.5% of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.

A 12,000-signature threshold would substantially lower a barrier that's prevented third parties from gaining ballot access in Tennessee, Hulsey said as he explained to subcommittee members how it would work.

"If they're running under the Libertarian Party, it would put 'Libertarian Party' and the name of the candidate" on the ballot, Hulsey said. "It also says that if they get 1% in that race, then they can be registered in the state as a regular party and only get 25 signatures, just like you and I have to do."

Hulsey said Tennessee is one of a few states that has high barriers to third parties seeking ballot recognition.

As Hulsey offered to bring someone up to explain the bill further, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said there was no need to, because he was ready to vote.

Carter, who voted yes, later told the Times Free Press that "if 12,000 registered voters in Tennessee want another party, I'm for them having a platform. That's a sufficient number to ensure a valid movement."

Earlier, Hulsey said that in the history of Tennessee "there have been 40 minor parties who've had great influence on this state, elections of this state. I'm just trying to get ballot access to minor parties."

Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, asked whether "any party or religious-affiliated group could get on the ballot and potentially be a party."

Replied Hulsey: "With 12,000 signatures, yes."

In years past, frustrated representatives of minor parties have sued the state seeking to overturn rules they say are designed to thwart their efforts.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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