Earlier this month, would-be state representative Kerrie Dickson took her battle to court, hoping to convince a judge to extend a long-passed July 21 deadline to collect the 1,389 signatures required by state law to enter the race for District 8, in the North Georgia mountains. Dickson met and exceeded the requisite number of signatures, but some 300 were subsequently disallowed; she hopes to submit new, verified signatures.
"It's really been difficult," says Dickson, 49, a nurse active in lobbying on juvenile-justice issues. "Many of the private businesses won't let you circulate petitions on their property. And in state and public parks, I've been threatened 12 times with arrest."
Dickson is basing her legal fight in part upon those threats, citing instances of police harassment on public property as one reason the deadline should be extended. Legal challenges to Georgia's strict ballot-access laws are nothing new, and legislation loosening those requirements is offered virtually every legislative session.
But Dickson and co-plaintiff Hugh Esco, a Green Party organizer, also have taken the rather extraordinary step of subpoenaing Secretary of State Cathy Cox to appear in court. State attorneys have moved to toss that subpoena out.
"We want to question her about what that oath of office she took really means," says Esco, whose legal complaint observes that "Secretary Cox swore an oath to 'protect the constitution of the United States and of Georgia.'"
As Cox spokesman Chris Riggle notes, the case is likely to boil down to a simple case of numbers and dates. Period.
"Sometimes, as we enforce the election laws, folks don't like the decisions we make, and we get sued fairly frequently. We expect it; it comes with the territory," Riggle says. "It makes no sense to expect the secretary of state to appear in court. We do have over 400 employees here, and she certainly doesn't fill out every form and verify every signature."
State Elections Director Linda Beazley declines to discuss the Green Party suit but says she's unaware of any provision in the law allowing the exception Dickson seeks.
Not all third-party candidates are struggling here. Georgia's third-largest party, the Libertarians, have candidates on the ballot in five races. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan -- the happy recipient of $12 million in federal funds following last week's ruling by the Federal Elections Commission --- also is ensured a spot.
But it hasn't been an easy year for the local Greens. The death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, and the special election to fill that seat, mean that at least one Green candidate will be on the statewide ballot: Atlanta attorney and author Jeff Gates. His party affiliation won't be listed on the non-partisan ballot required under the law. (Libertarian Paul MacGregor also is in that race). Besides Dixon, two other potential Green statehouse candidates washed out on their petition drives.
And Esco, who spent much of the year trying to collect 39,000 signatures to get Green presidential hopeful Ralph Nader on the ballot, ended up with about 12,000 -- and a slate of nasty encounters and near-arrests. As a result, Nader is registered only as a write-in candidate here.
"It's hard to retain a crew under threat of arrest on criminal trespass charges," says Esco, who says Green Party petitioners were booted out of Atlanta's Pride Festival, among other events.
Such encounters, he says, reflect some of the "really ugly reactions we're getting from some of our own grassroots people." As liberal Democrats raise concerns about Nader pulling support from Al Gore's presidential bid, some Greens are becoming more pragmatic. They're pushing progressives to support Nader in those states where George W. Bush is perceived as a lock in November, in hopes to get enough Green votes to qualify in 2004 for federal election funds and ballots nationwide. Esco hopes liberal Georgians will go that route.
"The Democrats have only taken one race in Georgia since 1960 when no favorite son was running ... " he says. "In '92, Clinton took Georgia. He failed in '96 and I don't thing Gore can do it this year. As I see it in Georgia, a vote for Gore is a wasted vote ... And it's a great opportunity to help build the Green Party into what many people once thought the Democratic Party could be."