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Ballot Access
for Minor Candidates

Richard Winger
Ballot Access News

Richard Winger is the publisher of Ballot Access News, the foremost publication in the United States on issues related to laws and regulations related to ballot access questions. Winger is also field representative of the Coalition for Free and Open Elections (COFOE), a ballot access advocacy group located at Box 20263, London Terrace Sta., New York, NY 10011, (212) 691-0776. Winger and Ballot Access News can be reached at Box 470296, San Francisco, CA, 94147, (415) 922-9779.
Click here to go to Ballot Access News on the World Wide Web.

Excerpted from Minor Presidential Candidates and Parties of 1992: A Reference by Glenn Day (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1992), p. 5-8.
Copyright ©1992 by Glenn Day.



How Ballot Access Restrictions Harm Minor Presidential Candidates

Each state makes its own laws governing how a candidate gets on the ballot. This is true even for candidates for president.

Rules vary widely. Some states make it very easy for candidates to get on the ballot; other states make it very difficult. Typically, a candidate for president running in the Democratic or Republican primary can get on the ballot by paying a filing fee, although a substantial minority of states require the primary candidate to submit a petition signed by some specified number of voters. By contrast, a candidate running as an independent in the general election in November, or a candidate running as the nominee of a new, or previously unrecognized, political party is usually required to obtain thousands of petition signatures in each state to be included on the general election ballot.

Ballot Access Laws Governing the Democratic and Republican Presidential Primaries

To be included on all state primary ballots, presidential candidates must pay total filing fees of $8,100. In addition, candidates must submit petition signatures from registered voters, but the number of signatures required depends upon whether the candidate is "important" or "unimportant ."

An "important" candidate running in the Democratic primary must submit 26,000 signatures nationwide; an "important" Republican must submit 54,750.

However, if the candidate is "unimportant," he or she needs 112,251 petition signatures to qualify for access to the Democratic primary ballot or 141,001 signatures for the Republican.

"Important" candidates need fewer signatures than "unimportant" candidates because many states waive signature requirements for "important" candidates. But no state uses the term "important candidates" or "unimportant candidates." Instead, their laws refer to "candidates recognized in the news media" and "other candidates." In other words, if a candidate is acknowledged by television newsmen and major newspaper reporters as someone worth covering, then that candidate has a much easier time getting on the ballot.

Even in states which make no distinction between "candidates recognized by the media" and "other candidates," the former have an advantage getting on the ballot. For example, in 1988 Republican presidential candidates needed 5,000 signatures to get on the Texas primary ballot. Most of the Republican contenders, including Senator Robert Dole, failed to get these signatures. It turned out that many of the Republican candidates had hired the same petition-gathering firm to obtain the needed signatures. In turn, this particular petition-gathering firm hired unscrupulous petitioners who forged names on the petitions. When the forgeries were discovered and invalidated, the state Republican Party and the Texas Secretary of State quickly announced that all the candidates would be placed on the ballot anyway, even though most of them did not have enough valid signatures. "Unimportant" candidates never get such royal treatment when they fail to get enough signatures.

Ballot Access Laws Governing Third Party and Independent Candidates

Following the primaries, independent candidates and nominees of third parties must gain access to the general election ballot. For independents and third party nominees, the laws are more severe than for candidates running as Democrats or Republicans. Independent presidential candidates and third party nominees need approximately 750,000 valid signatures in order to get on the general election ballots of all states. For Democrats and Republicans, access is automatic. In 1924, third party presidential candidates needed only 75,000 signatures to get on the ballot of all states. The population of the United States since doubled, but ballot access laws are many times more diffficult. Change began during the 1930s when major party politicians were eager to discourage labor from starting its own party.

The laws were again made more restrictive during the period 1948-1953 when fear and hatred of the Communist Party were very strong. Ballot access laws were tightened further during 1969-1975 after George Wallace's 1968 third party showing of 13% shocked Democratic and Republican Party politicians. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court stated for the first time that overly strict ballot access laws violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. However, in 1971, the Court made it plain that they were only willing to declare such laws unconstitutional if the laws were so diffficult that virtually no one could ever use them. The Court has ruled that ballot access laws can require candidates to obtain the signatures of 5 % of the number of registered voters. Five percent of the number of registered voters in the U.S. at this time is approximately 7,500,000. Since petition gathering costs about $1.00 per signature, the Court's ruling means that it is constitutionally permissible for states to erect ballot access hurdles costing candidates over $7,000,000 to comply.

How Strict Ballot Access Laws Harm Candidates for Office

  1. Since strict ballot access laws frequently cannot be complied with, such laws make it difficult or impossible for the candidate's own supporters to vote for him or her.
  2. Although in most states it is possible to vote for a candidate who is not on the ballot by means of a write-in vote, not all states allow this. Furthermore, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th circuit, ruled in 1991 that it is constitutionally permissible for a state to abolish write-in voting altogether. Unless the U. S . Supreme Court overturns this ruling in 1992, it is likely that more and more states will abolish the alternative of write-in voting.
  3. Candidates kept off the ballot by strict access laws find it virtually impossible to obtain newspaper or television coverage to put their message before the voters. Almost no write-in candidate for president receives any media attention.
  4. Candidates who manage to comply with strict ballot access laws frequently exhaust their campaign treasuries in the effort. Little is left for advertising and travel needed to place their message before the voters.
  5. Strict ballot access laws make it more likely that minor political parties will splinter into factions. The socialist movement in the United States provides a good example of how this splintering occurs. During the decade 1900 to 1910, ballot access laws were easy. There were only two parties in the U.S. advocating socialism-the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party. Although these two parties each contained members with widely differing opinions, both held together. Optimism and electoral success contributed to their cohesion. Since ballot access laws weren't much of a problem, both competed whole-heartedly in elections.
  6. But as ballot access laws became increasingly strict, the socialist movement splintered into a number of separate political parties. By 1976, at least 6 different socialist presidential candidates appeared on the general election ballot. Each competed against the other every 4 years. Why the splintering? Partly because the socialist parties were so pessimistic about making any electoral "splash" that they had no incentive to hang together. With severe ballot access laws draining their resources and keeping them off the ballot in approximately half the states, many felt that if they could not poll a decent vote anyway, they might at least have the satisfaction of being "pure" in doctrine.
The United States has the most severe ballot access laws of any democracy in the world. In the Russian Republic, ballot access requirements to run for president in 1991 are 1/7 of 1%. By contrast, U.S. ballot access laws require a new political party to submit valid signatures of over 2% of the electorate, more than two million voters, in order to run a candidate for Congress in all districts. As a result, since 1920 less than half of the congressional districts have seen a third party candidate. As U.S. voting rates decline year after year, the American public still seems unaware that our electoral system needs the "shot in the arm" offered by new, broadly based political parties and candidates, but that this alternative has been locked out of the system.


Last Modified on 11-Apr-97

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