for Minor Candidates
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Last Modified on 11-Apr-97
Created and maintained by The Case Program, Kennedy School of Government,
| CREDITS |
Please send corrections or suggestions to The
For technical questions related to this site, please contact the KSG webmaster.
Copyright ©1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College