A Formidable Barrier to Fair Participation

Richard Winger

The Battle to Get on the Ballot
        A more perfect democracy for the United States requires a shift to a more proportional electoral system; it also requires a better system of financing election campaigns. But even those two fundamental reforms are not sufficient by themselves. The United States, alone among the world's nations, also badly needs ballot access reform.
        Very few people are aware of the ballot access problem in the United States. Each state writes its own ballot access laws, even for federal office. Since there is no single standard for the whole nation, the public and even the media are ignorant about ballot access laws. By contrast, the campaign spending laws (for federal office) are uniform for the entire nation, leading to the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign spending laws for federal office being familiar to the press and most political activists.

Little-known ballots access laws
        How bad are the ballot access laws? Consider these little-known facts:

        1) Even Democrats and Republicans sometimes have a difficult time getting on the ballot in some states. In one-third of all state legislative general election, there is only one candidate on the ballot for each seat. Even congressional elections are sometimes one-candidate affairs: in 1990, for example, one of the two major parties didn't run anyone in U.S. Senate races in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia.
        Among the barriers for Republicans and Democrats are the high number of signatures needed to get on primary ballots (especially true in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico and New York), excessive filing fees (7% of the annual salary in Florida, which amounts to over $8,000 for Congressional candidates) and hyper-technical petition requirements (New York). Also, Arkansas still requires parties to pay for their own primaries in 69 of its 75 counties, and forbids a party from nominating anyone except by primary; this prevents the Republican Party from contesting even one-fourth of Arkansas legislative seats.

        2) The ballot access barriers for Republicans and Democrats are nothing compared to the hurdles faced by other candidates. The ballot access laws for new and minor parties to get on the ballot for Congress are so tough, that not since 1920 has any third party been able to place candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives on the ballot in even half of the districts! Consider barriers in the following states:
        • Georgia: The legislature passed a law in 1943 requiring that new party and independent candidates submit a petition signed by 5% of the number of registered voters in order to get on the ballot for any office. Previously, any party could get on the ballot just by requesting it. The result has been that since 1943, there has not been one third party candidate on the Georgia ballot for U.S. House of Representatives.
        • Florida: The ballot access laws for third parties and independent candidates have been very severe ever since 1931. Since 1931, there have been only two third party candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives on the ballot and only one third party candidate for the U.S. Senate. There has not been a third party or independent candidate on the ballot for Governor of Florida since 1920. Currently, a filing fee of 7% of the annual salary of the office is also required unless the candidate is a pauper, while a third party or independent candidate for any statewide office (other than president) needs 196,255 valid signatures -- no independent candidate in any state in the U.S. has ever successfully complied with a signature requirement greater than 134,781 signatures.
        • Arkansas: The legislature passed a law in 1971 providing that new parties could not get on the ballot unless they submit a petition signed by a number of voters equal to 7% of the last vote cast. Because this law in 1977 was held unconstitutional (courts have since held that petition requirements cannot exceed 5% of the electorate), the legislature changed it to 3%. No political party has ever succeeded in getting on the Arkansas ballot, under either the 7% or the 3% rule -- partly because the state requires that the petition be completed in the four months during the odd year before an election year.
        • West Virginia: Third party and independent candidates for office (other than president) must circulate their petition before the primary. It is a crime for any petition circulator to approach anyone without saying "If you sign my petition, you cannot vote in the primary." The law can be enforced because it is illegal for anyone to circulate a petition without first obtaining "credentials" from election officials for this purpose. Furthermore, it is impossible for third party or independent candidates (not running for president) to ever know in advance if they have enough valid signatures because if anyone who signs a candidate's petition then votes in a primary, the signature of that person is invalid. For candidates, it is impossible to know who will actually vote in the primary, and it is too late to get signatures after the primary.

Better Ballot Access Abroad
        Great Britain and Canada can be criticized for their "winner-take-all" system. However, at least ballot access in those countries is equitable and fairly tolerant. In the most recent national elections in both countries, there were four or more parties on the ballot in a majority of parliamentary districts. Ballot access rules are the same for all parties in Great Britain and Canada.
        In Britain and Canada, it is possible for observers to tally up the popular vote for each party, across the whole nation, and compare the share of any party's share of the popular vote with its share of seats in Parliament. In the United States, we haven't even achieved that level of expression in the election system. The United States needs a more proportional system of voting and reform of the campaign spending laws. The U.S. also needs ballot access reform.

        Richard Winger is editor and publisher of the monthly newsletter Ballot Access News. For more information, contact: P.O. Box 470296, San Francisco, CA 94147 (415) 922-9779.

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