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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Independents, Third Parties Need Greater Ballot Access

Why do so many state laws make it so difficult and costly for independent and minor party candidates to get on the ballot? The official reason for such restrictions is that voters must be protected from frivolous candidates. The real reasons are: the Republican and Democratic Parties. They want to monopolize ballot access to the greatest degree possible and deprive voters of wider choices.
In Canada, a few dozen dollars and a few dozen signatures on a petition are sufficient to get a candidate’s name on the printed ballot. In California it takes about 125,000 valid petition signatures for an independent or minor party candidate to run for a federal office from that state. Arizona requires 7,264 signatures to be collected within a specified ten day period. In New York, Missouri and Virginia, you not only have to collect a substantial number of signatures, but they have to come from all over the state, such as from each county in New York. West Virginia forbids petitioners from voting in its primary, while New York and Nebraska void the signatures of citizens who have already participated in a primary.

South Carolina requires citizens to write down both their precinct and voter registration numbers — the kind, of infor­mation that most people do not carry with them. Kansas mandates that the petition circulator live in the same neighborhood as the petition signers even if the candidate is running for the U.S. Congress.

To run on a party label is even more difficult. In California a minor party has to register 81,000 voters into the party to get on the ballot. In Georgia, a minor political party needs 60,000 people to sign eleven petitions each to obtain a party designation on the ballot.

These nasty obstructions are fostered by a Tweedledee and Tweedledum two party system which is not satisfied with con­stitutionally protected winner-take-all elections that entrench its dominance and undermine third party challenges. A minor party in the United States could get 25 percent of the vote in a state and end up with nothing, unlike many European countries where there is proportional representation.

Historically, third parties espoused numerous pioneering proposals which were later adopted by the major parties In their recent book, Third Parties in America, authors Rosenstone, Behr and Lazarus list women’s right to vote, the graduated income tax and the direct, election of Senators by the voters as illus­trations. They quote scholar Fred Haynes as arguing that third parties in the nineteenth century “were pioneers in the conver­sion of American politics from almost exclusive attention to constitutional and governmental matters to the vital needs of the people.” Historian John Hicks writes that, as regards a third party voter, “CA] glance through American history would seem to indicate that his kind of vote is after all probably the most powerful vote that has ever been cast.”

The proper shift to the secret “Australian ballot” by most states late in the 19th century ironically set the stage for the deplorable barriers of state ballot access laws, with their widely different filing deadlines and restrictions. Court challenges by George Wallace, Eugene McCarthy and John Anderson have resulted in decisions moderating some state rules. Governor Wallace won a case against the state of Ohio, with the U.S. Supreme Court holding unlawful that state’s requirement for 433,100 signatures on a petition nine months before the general election.

Against this dismal anti-democratic behavior wrought by the two major parties, corrective legislation has been introduced by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D. – MI) in the form of H.R. 2320. This bill would create fairer and more uniform standards for ballot access and ballot status in all federal elections. Conyers believes that the “labyrinth of state-enacted restrictions” deprives independent candidates and parties, together with the great number of voters who would otherwise vote for them, “of their constitutional rights of freedom of political expression and equal protection under the law.”

H.R. 2320 is simplicity itself. In four pages this legis­lation sets two uniform standards for all states to observe. One allows an individual candidate and his/her party to be placed on the ballot after submitting a petition with either 1,000 sig­natures or a number of signatures equal to one-tenth of one percent of the number of registered voters during the previous election. The other allows a political party to remain on the ballot if during the prior election that party received the lesser of 20,000 votes or one percent of the votes cast for President or Senator in that state.

If you wish a copy of H.R. 2320, write to Rep. Al Swift, chairman, House Subcommittee on Elections, Washington, D.C., 20515. You may wish to ask him to hold public hearings. With anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of all eligible voter not voting, our federal elections need all the political choices that H.R. 2320 can help give them.