Could West Virginia do a Minnesota?
Could a third-party Jesse Ventura-type or Ralph Nader himself draw a winning or significant portion of the vote in what many politicos call a one-party state?
There are a few people who hope so.
In major races: Libertarian candidate Bob Myers is on the ballot for governor. Novelist Denise Giardina is in the last push of a drive to get her Mountain Party gubernatorial bid on the ballot. And, an effort to collect nearly 13,000 signatures to put Ralph Nader on the ballot as a Green Party presidential candidate is under way.
"People are interested in another choice other than Democrat and Republican," said Myers, a former Democrat from Huntington who has held local and lesser state offices. "The proof of that isn't the gravitation to the Libertarian Party but the gravitation toward independent registration."
Bill Harrington, chief of staff for the Secretary of State's Office, confirmed there has been a move toward independent registration in the last decade. But it has been a slight one, he added.
However, third parties have built enough interest that Libertarians are now authorized for ballot access. That is because a 1996 gubernatorial candidate who gained ballot access with a petition drive garnered more than 1 percent of the overall vote, Harrington said.
If the Mountain Party has enough non-primary voter signatures to make it to the ballot and Giardina draws at least one percent of the vote, West Virginia would actually be a four-party state, he explained of state law.
These laws governing ballot access and others regarding voter registration are part of the reason West Virginia is less likely than a state such as Minnesota to vote heavily for a third-party candidate, said Kevin Leyden, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.
"Minnesota's history and electoral rules really do matter in determining whether a third party has a shot at winning," Leyden said.
Prior to Ventura's win as a Reform Party candidate, Minnesotans had elected other third-party candidates. The Farm Labor party saw great success in the 1920 and '30s, Leyden said, so much so that decades after its merger with state Democrats, the resulting party is still referred to as the Democrat-Farm Labor Party on ballots.
Other key elements to Minnesota's acceptance of third parties, Leyden said, are laws that allow easier access to ballots and debates, public funding of new parties and same-day voter registration, which compares to 28 days prior to election in West Virginia.
The latter was a major factor in Ventura's victory, Leyden said.
"Jesse Ventura, he's sort of this charming, well-known wrestling figure. He ran and got a lot of people interested in voting," Leyden said, commenting Ventura's case is more of a third personality than a third party. "These tend to be the type of people that don't register in advance."
Giardina supporters agree that rules matter much to third parties. They have been vocal in opposing a particular state law that disallows those who sign a ballot-access petition to vote in that year's primary election.
Another part of the problem is that a number of voters fear a vote for a third party candidate is, at best, thrown away, or, at worst, a boost to a political enemy.
"Conventional wisdom is every vote for Ralph Nader is a vote away from the major liberal candidate," said Jim Sconyers, director of the state Sierra Club chapter, of concern Nader could hurt Democrat Al Gore.
While the international Green Party has seen success in states such as California, Maine and New Mexico and in European nations, Sconyers is doubtful Nader has a realistic chance nationally.
"You're trying to make a decision between a matter of principal and a matter of practicality," Sconyers said.
That is certainly something of which Giardina is aware. On the front page of her website, she recently displayed a John Quincy Adams quote: "Always vote for principle: Though you may vote alone, you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost."
Principle is a main part of many third-party platforms, activists said. Giardina speaks directly against such hot-button issues as mountaintop-removal mining. Other against-the-flow Mountain Party platform ideas include tithing 10 percent of campaign contributions to charity and limiting school consolidation.
Libertarians are generally in favor of smaller government, Myers said. Other key platform items include educational choice (vouchers for private or other school alternatives) and reversing state population decline.
Nader's candidacy raises many environmental and labor issues.
WVU's Leyden believes how third parties lean may be particularly important to their success in Democrat-voting West Virginia.
"I guess there might be some room on the right," Leyden said. He theorized the Libertarians might have a better chance in luring away dissatisfied Republicans than leftward parties would have drawing away Democrats.
But, whether a third party has a shot at a win in West Virginia, or not, Leyden is interested in seeing how they can influence the outcome.
Will Giardina supporters weaken Democrat gubernatorial candidate Bob Wise to the point of a win for Republican Cecil Underwood? Will Giardina or Myers raise issues so popular with voters that it will pull Wise further left or Underwood farther right?
Of course, there's always the possibility a major personality could swing voters away from the mainstream in the future.
If someone of Ventura's popularity, say a NASCAR driver, ran for governor, Leyden suspects the political models could be thrown to the wind.
"I'm sure he'd whip up some kind of a frenzy," Leyden said.
Whoever and however, many third-party interests want more selection, according to Missy Anthony, co-petition drive coordinator for the Mountain Party.
"It's not always going to black or white in this state," Anthony said. "Maybe we need a shade of gray in there somewhere."
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.