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:
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.
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 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