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Ballot Access

What is ballot access?    

“Ballot access” is the term for various requirements candidates and political parties must meet in order to appear on a ballot.  Most are set by law, though in some specialized situations, parties can decide internally who appears on their ballot line.

In the US, each state writes its own ballot access laws, even for federal offices including President, the Senate and House of Representatives.  The laws vary enormously from state to state. However, they generally present much higher hurdles for so-called “third” or “minor” parties and candidates, such as the Green or Libertarian parties, than for Democrats and Republicans.  

Ballot access is far more restricted in the US than in other countries.  In the UK, for example, every candidate for Parliament, regardless of party, faces the same ballot-access hurdle – a simple filing fee.

Why does ballot access matter?

In states with looser requirements, third parties and greater numbers of candidates can flourish.  Where requirements are high, there are fewer choices for voters, fewer new policy ideas and fewer new faces.  Even when a candidate or party has done everything right to gain ballot access, the legal costs to fight challenges can be beyond their means.  Third parties inevitably get drawn into ballot access battles that hurt their ability to mount vigorous campaigns and build their parties over time.  

And insurgents within a major party can face ballot challenges as party leaders’ first line of defense. In his first political race, Barack Obama challenged signatures and got three of his opponents thrown off the ballot.

Why was ballot access changed?

New York’s relatively lenient ballot access requirements along with the state’s “fusion” rule, which allows candidates to appear on multiple parties’ ballot lines, have allowed the Working Families Party (WFP) to become a real force.   Other “third” parties, including the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, are also relatively strong in New York and are considered “established” parties.

Although WFP had long endorsed Democrats and put them on its ballot line, in recent years it became more independent, including running WFP-endorsed candidates against the Democratic governor in his last two primaries.  

WFP expected Democrats to punish them by eliminating the “fusion” rule as part of the Public Campaign Finance Commission process – even though fusion had nothing to do with campaign finance.  WFP mobilized when eliminating fusion did become part of the Commission’s plan late in 2019. However, at the last minute the Commission went in a different direction, and radically raised the state’s ballot access requirements instead.

What are the new ballot access requirements?

The commission voted that in order for political parties to maintain a guaranteed line on the state ballot, they must draw either 2 percent (or 130,000 votes, whichever is greater) of the general election vote for governor or president every two years.  The current threshold is just 50,000 votes every four years, pegged to the governor’s race, a level that regularly allowed multiple smaller parties on both ends of the political spectrum to qualify for state ballots.

It is now also required that a party must run a candidate for President to qualify.  WFP, which has a presence in only a few states, has not run Presidential candidates.

Should a third party fail to garner the required number of votes, it can still regain a ballot line for a candidate through petitions.  But the commission made that process harder, too: It voted to raise the number of signatures required to petition onto the ballot to 45,000, from 15,000.

What are the effects of those restrictions?

The New York Times noted that this plan would suppress third parties in New York.  The requirements are not only dramatically higher than they were, they’re now among the most restrictive in the country.  

On January 14, 2020 the SAM Party of New York filed a lawsuit against the new law. It points out that the SAM Party does not desire to nominate anyone for president in 2020. It therefore seeks a ruling that requiring a party to run someone for president in order to retain qualified status violates the U.S. Constitution. 

The new law provides that if any part of it is held unconstitutional, then all of it is void. 

How do New York’s ballot access requirements compare to other states? 

It’s difficult to compare states, as the rules vary so widely in so many ways.  But one can compare a few states as examples of low and high hurdles to getting on the ballot.  

It’s easy to see that California has low hurdles, by the very large number of candidates running at any given time.  A candidate can gather signatures OR pay a filing fee to get on the ballot. If you gather some signatures but less than the total needed to get on the ballot for free, your fee will be prorated based on how many sigs you did get.  The filing fee is 1 to 2% of the annual salary for the position (generally a few thousand dollars), and the signature requirement ranges from 1,000 to 7,000 signatures for state-level offices.

In Illinois, on the restrictive end of the spectrum, there is a big difference between “established” and “new/independent” parties.  “Established” candidates for governor need 5,000 signatures from party members. “New/independent” candidates need signatures equal to 1% of the total votes in the last general election (in a state of nearly 13 million people) or 25,000 signatures, whichever is less.  “New/independent” candidates for state senator or assembly need signatures equal to 5% of the in-district vote in the last election.

Compare that to the new rules in New York.  “Minor” parties will need to receive either 2 percent of the general election vote for governor or president, or 130,000 votes, every two years, to remain as an “established” party.  If they fail, they will have to get 45,000 petition signatures per candidate. These are among the most difficult hurdles in the entire country, and they are dangerously undemocratic.

Of the most popular minor parties in New York, only the Conservative Party would have been left standing after 2018’s election were the [new] rules in play, having secured nearly 239,000 votes.  Struck from 2019 and 2020 ballots would have been the Libertarians and parties that have for the most part become widely-recognizable across the state – WFP, Green, Independence and the Serve America Movement.

Possible Solutions

If the SAM lawsuit succeeds, the entire law based on the Commission’s plan would be void, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.  If that doesn’t happen, the legislature could consider a range of solutions, from simply allowing the previous ballot access rules to be restored, to eliminating most of the hurdles and going to a simple filing fee such as they have in the UK.

 CNN Politics, “Obama played hardball in first Chicago campaign,” May 2008. 
 “Democrats’ Plan Will Suppress Third Parties in New York,” Jesse McKinley, New York Times, 11/25/19
 Source: Ballotpedia.  2020 election cycle in most cases.  
 “Op Ed: Minor parties face major obstacles in New York,”  Bob Confer, Niagara Gazette, 12/6/19

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