Commentary & Analysis

Better Ballot Access

By Darryl W. Perry

There are many aspects to election reform. Mostly when people talk about reforming elections, they will discuss campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, or occasionally an alternative method of voting; however few people want to have a serious conversation about ballot access reform.

Most legislators and major party members will say things like “if a candidate doesn’t have a certain level of support, they shouldn’t be on the ballot.” On its face, this seems to make sense… until you realize that in most places it is incredibly easy for a member of a major party (i.e. Republicans & Democrats) to get on the ballot without needing to show any level of support. So the people telling you this are exactly the people who benefit from restrictive ballot access.

Generally, a major-party candidate needs to pay only a nominal filing fee. In many cases that candidate will face no opposition in the primary, and often not even any real opposition in the general election. A recent report showed that 83 of the 140 legislators in Alabama, and 121 of 200 Massachusetts legislators faced no general election opposition. Obviously there are many factors that weigh into an election without opposition, and ballot access laws in Massachusetts and Alabama are completely different.

What then would an ideal ballot access law look like? The ideal ballot access law would do at least two things:
1) treat all candidates and parties equally
2) not be overly burdensome.

There are three main aspects to most access laws: party registration, and/or filing fees, or nominal petitioning. Mississippi and Vermont allow a place on the ballot for any organized party. Florida does the same. Plus it has two additional requirements that (1) a party must have a certain level of financial activity and (2) its candidates, except the Presidential nominee, need to pay a filing fee or collect a large number of signature.

The filing fees in Florida, however, can be fairly hefty and seen as less burdensome than the high petitioning requirement. An independent candidate for State Representative or State Senate in Florida needs to pay a filing fee of $1,187.88, and a candidate running under a party label must pay a fee of $1,781.82!

This can hardly be seen as encouraging people to run for office, and violates rule 2 (overly burdensome) of my ideal ballot access law. A candidate from a qualified party (Republican or Democrat) in New Hampshire needs to pay only $2 to run for State Representative, and an independent or minor party candidate in New Hampshire must pay the same fee and collect a large number of petitions. This violates rule 1 of my ideal ballot access law (treat everyone equally).

In Tennessee, any independent candidate can run for office by submitting a petition signed by only 25 voters. However, if that candidate wants a party label (other than that of a qualified political party) next to their name, then they must collect a number of petitions equal to 2.5% of the most recent Gubernatorial election—and in a small time window. This petitioning requirement has been challenged, and is still pending court action.

Additionally, because this requirement is overly burdensome, this would not fit the definition of my ideal ballot access law. And based on my research, it seems that Vermont & Mississippi have the closest thing in practice that I can find to my ideal ballot access law, though not without some smaller problematic issues.

What then would my ideal ballot access law look like?

Any party that is organized must be allowed to place their candidates on the ballot, as long as the candidate either:

1) pays a filing fee of not more than:
a) $500 for a statewide office. The fee for other state, or county offices should be proportional to the fee set for a statewide office (e.g. if there are 100 state representatives, the fee should be $5).
b) $500 for President or US Senate and not more than $300 for US House.
OR
2) collects a number of petitions over 1/3 of 1% of the number of registered voters in the district from which the election is to occur.

I realize that such a law will not fix everything that is wrong with our election system. For our elections to truly be fair, there needs to be a complete overhaul of the entire election system, including how candidates access the ballot and how voters cast their ballot.

Darryl W. Perry is the author of Duopoly: How the Republicrats Control the Electoral Process.