Of all the things that make a viable candidate, being able to actually cast a ballot for said candidate is probably the most important characteristic. With each state having its own set of rules around how candidates can qualify for battle access, minor parties and independent candidates looking to launch national campaigns often get caught up in a set of confusing and inconsistently enforced regulations.
Since 1965, Richard Winger has studied these laws and, since 1985, has published Ballot Access News, then a newsletter and now a website focused on the subject of ballot access and efforts to reform it. I sat down with him for this week's episode of YDHTY to discuss the current state of ballot access laws across the country, their effects, and what reforms we could implement to make a fair process for all legitimately seeking office.
The stated purpose of ballot access laws is to keep ballots from becoming so crowded that voters have a difficult time making their decision. Given the last two presidential primaries began with over 10 candidates, it's clear these laws have fallen short.
While voters in the very first elections in the United States simply wrote their choices on a piece of paper, ballots became standardized in the 1800s and some rules were needed to manage printing costs. These rules varied widely state by state, but still kept the field relatively open for smaller parties, with third parties frequently gaining seats in Congress.
This changed in the 1920s, when the fear of a communist wave during the Red Scare led to the tightening of ballot access requirements to prevent them from gaining power. In short, our current patchwork of ballot access laws is effective at preventing independents and minor party candidates from gaining office, because that's what they were designed to do.
While Winger recommends some threshold of credibility for a candidate to make it on the ballot, many states have laws designed and used more to preserve two-party dominance than to keep the list of candidates manageable. Most recently, the Wisconsin Democratic Party successfully removed Green Party Presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins, from the ballot on the grounds that the current address of his Vice Presidential candidate didn't match that on her filing paperwork (she'd moved to a different address in the same town in Georgia after filing).
Winger's recommendation is a 5,000 signature requirement for anyone seeking statewide office. Based on his analysis, this would keep the list of candidates manageable, while removing the ability for one or both major parties from using it as a cudgel to block potential competitors.
One last reform Winger recommends entirely unrelated to ballot access: Give minor party candidates better media access.
Countries such as the UK and Canada have thriving multi-party systems while having electoral systems similar to those in the United States. This is due, in large part, to the fact media outlets are required to provide equal time to all candidates, giving minor parties a chance to make their case to voters.
In American media, minor party candidates are often covered in the context of how they might help or hurt the chances of a major party candidate, effectively branding them as a wasted vote.
Aside from getting on the ballot, the most important factor to making a candidate viable is voters knowing they exist. With the majority of voters getting their information from mass media, media access may be just as important.