Lighten the Burden on Third Parties

Conduit Street’s Kevin Kinnally reports that the Libertarian and Green Parties are going to court to try to reduce the signature burden to get on this year’s ballot:

The Maryland Green Party and the Libertarian Party of Maryland yesterday filed suit in US District Court in Baltimore seeking to reduce the number of signatures required to appear on the ballot for the June 2 presidential primary election, claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines made it impossible for them to exercise their First Amendment rights.

According to Maryland law, a non-principal political party must collect at least 10,000 signatures in order to be eligible to appear on the ballot. The Maryland Green Party had collected approximately 5,000 signatures and the Libertarian Party of Maryland had collected approximately 3,000 by early March 2020 when they were forced to suspend signature collection due to the public health emergency.

“We believe we have a constitutional right to seek to be on the ballot. The COVID-19 State of Emergency has interfered with the exercise of that right,” Andy Ellis, Co-Chair of the Maryland Green Party, and Bob Johnston, Chair of the Libertarian Party said in a statement. “We have asked the Governor to remedy this situation and he has not, so it is time to ask the court to intervene. Giving voters choices is too important to cast aside.”

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Signature collection for third parties is vital for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is the avenue for them to stay on the ballot from year to year. But also, it provides an opportunity to reach out to voters who may be exposed to their ideas for the first time.

I can’t speak to how successful the lawsuit is, though Kinnally notes that federal cases in Illinois and Michigan have reduced the burden for those parties. But the real question is this: why are the parties put through so many hoops in the first place?

I wrote about signature collection early this year when I suggested that Democratic and Republican candidates should be required to collect a limited number of signatures in order to appear on the primary ballot. For major party candidates, it’s too easy to appear on the ballot. But for third parties and independent candidates, it’s too hard in the best of times. And these are far from the best of times.

In order to appear on the ballot statewide, both independent and third parties candidates need to collect 10,000% signatures to be recognized as a party or to appear on the ballot as an independent candidate. An independent candidate running in a county, city, or district-level race would need to collect signatures in the amount of 1% of the registered voters eligible to vote in that race. That is usually a bridge too far for most candidates running at any level.

Further frustrating the issue for third parties particularly is the fact that they are required to obtain 1% of the vote in every general election or have 1% of registered voters affiliate with the party by the end of a general election year in order to maintain ballot access. A standard that is ridiculous to maintain consider the difficulty third-party candidates have in obtaining media coverage for their races, let alone the resources to compete.

The question I have is this: what public benefit is there to continue to make it difficult for third parties and independent candidates to appear on the ballot? How is the public good being served when voters are being denied the opportunity to vote for other voices?

There has to be a better way.

I propose a few changes to make things better:

  1. Reduce the signature burden for third parties and independent statewide candidates from 10,000 to 2,000
  2. Reduce the signature burden for independent candidates for other offices from 1% of 0.2% of eligible voters for their race;
  3. Allow third parties and candidates to “buy-out” signatures for $4 per signature. For example, a candidate could spend $8,000 and buy out the entire signature requirement for a statewide race, or they could collect 1,000 signatures and spend $4,000 to buy out the remaining signatures.
  4. Change the requirement to retain ballot access from “1% of the vote in every general election” to “1% of the vote in at least one general election every four years.”
  5. As I have suggested in the past, allow fusion candidates on the ballot.

How much of a difference would these changes have made? Even if just idea #4 were implemented, the Green and Libertarian Parties would still have ballot access based on the results of the 2016 Presidential Election (and the Green candidate for U.S. Senate also exceeded the threshold). In fact, with just the 1% requirement changed the Green Party would have had continuous ballot access since the 2000 election without having to collect additional signatures.

The likelihood of any of these changes happening is pretty low. Elected officials, particularly legislative Democrat, have little incentive to make the process easier for parties and candidates outside of the two-party duopoly. But this change is easy, inclusive, and should have little impact on results. There is no reason not to make this happen.

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