by Barbara Barry

A ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in July props up a discriminatory, state-sponsored campaign subsidy program that increases the free speech rights of Connecticut's large political parties while reducing the free speech rights of smaller parties.

In reversing last year's ruling by U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, the appeals court gave candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties easy access to millions in public campaign finance funds through the Citizen's Election Program while leaving in place onerous qualifying requirements for the state's third-party candidates.

Any gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut, for example, must raise $250,000 in small donations to qualify for a $3.2 million election program grant. Under the rules, however, a Green Party (or any other third-party) candidate also must collect 220,000 valid signatures on petitions for governor or any other statewide office to get a full grant. How many signatures do our Republican and Democratic opponents have to collect under the program rules to get their huge grants? The answer is none.

Further, our candidates are banned from even applying for the election program's handsome primary grant money because minor parties and unaffiliated voters in Connecticut cannot participate in state-sponsored and state-paid-for primaries.

Judge Underhill had properly recognized the unfair burden the campaign finance laws place on third-party or petitioning candidates, which negates the law's intent of opening up access to the election process. Candidates collecting signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election get one-third the amount of money granted to major party candidates. This one-third grant does not fulfill the constitutional requirement of equal protection guaranteed under the 14th Amendment and turns smaller parties and independent voters into third-class citizens.

If third-party candidates gather signatures representing 15 percent of the vote, they get two-thirds of a total grant. Only by collecting signatures amounting to 20 percent of the vote can these candidates get a full grant. Third-party candidates may also qualify for partial or full grants based on the number of votes their party received in previous elections.

It is important to note that the appellate court decision was not unanimous; one of the three judges voted for Judge Underhill's view that the petitioning requirements of the election program violate the 1st and 14th amendment rights of Connecticut's minor political parties. The Green Party brought this suit to require party neutrality in the handing out of grants. Instead, we are left with a decision that gives short shrift to the more than 42 percent of Connecticut's voters who are unaffiliated or registered with a minor party.

Candidates from the Green Party and other minor parties have won offices in recent elections and have had a substantial impact on the outcome of other elections. Yet we are treated as a separate and unequal class under this law.

Similar Arizona and Maine public campaign finance laws require a much smaller fundraising requirement for entrance into their programs, and neither state has any petitioning requirements or minimum percentage of electoral results for full smaller-party participation in their public financing systems. Years of experience in these states give us observable and measurable evidence that equal and fair treatment of smaller political parties does not confuse the ballot or the voters, does not create political divisiveness and has not led to the creation of mischievous political parties.

Connecticut's two largest political parties have legislated rules that reduce the constitutional rights and political opportunity of smaller political parties. The election program rules as written game the system for Democrats and Republicans. The appeals court reversal of Judge Underhill's decision is not equitable, fair or democratic.

Barbara Barry is the state secretary of the Green Party of Connecticut