Greeted by scorching temperatures, taciturn county apparatchiks, one flushed TV crew and a bleary Weekly writer, Green doyenne Carolyn Campbell handed a hefty stack of signatures over to Registrar of Voters Chris Roads. The registrar blinked rather quickly once or twice, then shuffled the banker's box off to a staffer, who yanked out his stamp of legitimacy and got down to tedious business.
For a party that's spent the better part of a decade battling for validity, it was a far bigger moment than the lack of pomp would suggest. To field their candidates on statewide ballots, the Greens needed to gather about 13,500 signatures by May 23. To party regulars, it was no surprise that Pima County--traditionally an activist hotbed--contributed by far the greatest number of names, followed by a smattering of signatures in Coconino, Yavapai and Cochise, and a disappointing 4,200 or so in Maricopa County.
In the United States, where third parties are too often loose-lipped freak shows (witness Reform's Pat Buchanan) or hopelessly fringe (where dwells Gus Hall's communist dream?), the left-of-center, environmentally oriented Greens have found the going tough indeed. They have neither the deep pockets of Ross Perot, nor a single-issue mindset like the government-loathing Libertarians.
What they do have, however, is a broad umbrella shading the aspirations of countless compartmentalized interests, from advocates for human and animal rights to environmentalists, all the way down to folks who just want to jump-start the status quo.
They also have Ralph Nader. A consumer rights icon who regularly registers higher name recognition than either G.W. Bush or Al Gore, Nader is the Green's presidential contender for November, and he has pull. According to Campbell, Nader's Tucson appearance last March gave local Greens a huge signature boost.
While they still remain just a blip on the national radar screen, the Greens are riding a wave of disillusionment with the Democrats and Republicans, says Campbell. "The discontent keeps rising because nothing is changing. We've seen that in the last two elections with the Reform Party." But they've been boosted by having lots of money, thanks to their billionaire founder, Ross Perot, she says.
By contrast, the Greens are a bargain-basement, grassroots bunch. While Campbell is realistic about Nader's chances for claiming the White House, she believes he can prod Bush and Gore beyond "marketed TV debates where they basically can say as little as possible. I think that's a role that third parties have in general. And I think the Greens have such a wide range of issues that we're really concerned about, that those things can be brought out and force the issue."
She says Nader aims for ballot spots in all 50 states. While that remains a bit optimistic, "if he gets on in 45 states even, he's going to be a force to be contended with."
Detractors--even those ideologically aligned with the Greens--say throwing their votes to third-party candidates is akin to throwing their votes away. But Campbell says they're missing the point. "For example, Al Gore takes environmentalists and progressives for granted because none of us wants to elect George W. Bush. Therefore, he figures he can sell out on a lot of our issues. He gets away with that because there's nobody to challenge him.
"The fact is, with our current election system, Ralph Nader isn't going to (take enough votes from Gore) to elect George W. Bush," Still, she concedes that "when people go to the polls, even people who might have worked on Nader's campaign, when they get right down into that ballot box, they know their vote is going right into the trash. They may be helping to elect the person that's furthest from their views, and they just can't do it.
"So, as long as we have that system in the U.S., I don't believe there's going to be enough votes for a third party candidate (to win)."
Instead, she suggests revamping the rules--via the courts if necessary--to represent a broader spectrum of voters, where even candidates placing second or third in races still earn a spot at the table.
Such a change recently occurred in Amarillo, Texas, where minority coalitions consistently saw their school board candidates shot down at the polls. Following a successful lawsuit by the League of United Latin American Citizens, with support from the NAACP, a cumulative voting system was enacted. It gave each voter four votes, which could be awarded to a single candidate, or spread among several. The result? On May 6, an African-American and Hispanic finally won seats on the board.
Campbell hopes for similar, graduated voting systems across the country. "Either way, building a third party is such a long-term project," she says. "And there are two sides to it. There's the building of your numbers and the legitimacy of your platform and grassroots organizing. And the other side is changing the system, particularly at the state level.
"We have a very unique system in the United States where only candidates getting 51 percent of the vote get into legislatures." That means, time after time, the losing 49 percent of voters have no voice, she says. "But in most of the world, if you have 15 or 20 percent of the vote, you actually get a seat."
Dreary case-in-point: the Arizona Legislature, which Campbell calls "far from representative of state voters."
But the big shifts take time. In the short term, she'd just like to see more Green power in Phoenix, where the party scrounged a mere 4,200 petition signatures. Campbell admits that organizing Greens in the sprawling, notoriously conservative capital city is a chore. "Hitting the streets up there just wears you out," she says, "especially when you don't get a response. People are so mean to you, and a lot of the volunteers get discouraged."
She pauses, pondering Phoenicians' grumpy response to progressive politics. "I guess, maybe, it's because they're so much closer to the Legislature," she says with a sigh.