A Formidable Barrier to Fair Participation

by 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:

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 the editor and publisher of Ballot Access News.

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Copyright (c) © Richard Winger 1993, 1999.
Compilation Copyright (c) © Bob Bickford 1999.
This document is part of the Ballot Access News web site, and is located at