Ballot access reform: the first step in fixing America’s broken political system

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an article that was originally posted on my blog a few days ago. I’m reposting it here as a self-introduction of sorts for those of you who I haven’t ran into over at Daily Kos, as well as an invitation to participate in what I hope will be an ongoing dialogue about the general need for political reform.

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Over the last few decades or so, America has gradually trended toward the kind of stagnation that has laid low great empires throughout history. This is reflected in the gradual erosion of the American middle class and the increasing stratification of wealth within our country over the last few decades, as our elected leaders have prioritized the interests of concentrated wealth and the handful of individuals who control it over the interests of the people. The stagnation in which we are currently mired is a function of the death grip on political power maintained by the Republican and Democratic parties, who have been allowed to game the political system to their advantage to an extent not seen in any other democracy. As I have stated elsewhere, I believe that if we are to steer this country away from disaster we must first clear the path for economic and social reform by achieving fundamental systemic changes to break the two-party duopoly and replace it with an open multiparty democracy. One of the first, and certainly one of the most important, elements in that systemic reform must be the liberalization of ballot access laws at the federal and state level.

American democracy hasn’t always been in its current moribund state. Prior to becoming one of the poles in our bipolar political system, the Republican Party got its start as the most successful third party in American history, winning more governorships and congressional races in its first election cycle in 1854 than any other party and going on a mere 6 years later to take the presidency. According to reform advocate Richard Winger,in the 1896 general election there were at least two candidates on the ballot in every single congressional race in the country, and the average race had 3.1 candidates on the ballot. In 1912, this number was even higher, with the average election ballot listing 4.1 candidates for Congress.

But in the modern era, the American voter has significantly fewer choices available to him than his antecedents did at the beginning of the century. By 1984, there were only 2.3 candidates for Congress on the average ballot and 49 House races, or slightly more than one out of every nine, had only one ballot-listed candidate. Even some Senate contests are decided with only one candidate on the ballot: in 1990, for example, three incumbents were listed alone on the ballot, and a fourth, Virginia Senator John Warner was re-elected handily because the only candidate on the ballot against him was an independent, Nancy Spannaus; as recently as 2004, Mike Crapo of Idaho was elected with 99% of the vote because his name was listed alone on the ballot and his only opponent, a Democrat, ran as a write-in candidate. The situation is even worse in state legislative races, where as many as a third of all races list only one candidate on the ballot. What happened over the course of the 20th century to change the openness of the American political system so dramatically?

The emergence of ballot access as a tool to limit the participation of third parties and independent candidates has its roots in the implementation of the secret ballot in 1888. Previously, voters would either prepare their own ballots and write down the names of the qualified candidates they chose to vote for, or use ballots printed for them by the party they supported. The introduction of the secret ballot, a necessary development in the free exercise of the right to vote, led to official ballots being designed and printed by the government, and thus created a need to address the question of who should be included on the government-printed ballots.

At first, ballot access laws were not very restrictive and didn’t present much of a hindrance to political participation: in 1924, Robert LaFollette needed only about 75,000 valid signatures, or just over one-quarter of 1 percent of the number of votes cast that year, to get on the ballot in 47 states as the Progressive party candidate for president, and as recently as 1930, no state required more than 14,680 signatures for a new political party to get on the ballot. However, ballot-access laws began to become more restrictive in the 1930s, requiring minor parties and independent candidates to gather more signatures and file for application earlier in the campaign year, and by the 1960s ballot access laws had become a major impediment to political participation for those attempting to operate outside the two-party paradigm. In the 1980 presidential race, independent candidate John Anderson needed nearly 650,000 signatures, or nearly three-quarters of a percent of votes cast – three times the percentage that LaFollette needed – as well as several lawsuits to get on the ballot in all 50 states, an effort that cost him $6 million of money that could have been used publicizing his campaign. The bar for getting on the ballot has been raised so high in some places that, in Georgia for example, independent candidate Eugene Moon faces the daunting task of gathering 21,000 signatures just to get on the ballot as a candidate for the US House. If he succeeds, Moon will be the first independent candidate in Georgia since 1964 to successfully complete a petition for ballot access in a congressional race.

The pernicious effect of ballot access laws as barriers to political participation certainly isn’t limited to minor party or independent candidates, nor is it limited to general elections: Democratic and Republican candidates running in primaries for their parties’ nominations are often faced with onerous requirements that include gathering and validating a high number of signatures from registered voters, paying excessive filing fees, and navigating byzantine and overly technical petition requirements. But the barriers faced by members of the Big Two are nothing compared to those faced by minor party and independent candidates, due to the fact that ballot access laws are generally structured to favor established political parties. In some states, minor party and independent petitioners are handcuffed by laws that prohibit people who have either voted in a party’s primary or registered as party member from signing ballot petitions. Democrats and Republicans have done such an effective job gaming the system against minor parties that no third party since 1920 has been able to place candidates on the ballot in half or more of congressional races in any given election cycle.

The ballot access barrier isn’t the only tool that the Republican/Democratic duopoly has used to maintain its hold on political power, but it has been one of the most important and effective tools in their arsenal. And their control over the workings of the American political system has had an observable degrading effect on democracy in this country: what was once a relatively robust political system with viable minor parties has devolved into a dysfunctional mess plagued by low voter turnout, low turnover, and gridlock. Contrast this with the situation in other democracies, where ballot access thresholds are set much lower and minor parties are a much bigger variable in the political equation. In the UK, for example, where three major political parties and several minor parties have all been able to seat members of parliament, parties don’t have to petition to get on the ballot, and are only required to complete a relatively (in comparison with America) simple registration process with the nation’s Electoral Commission. The threshold for party ballot access is low enough that there are nearly 400 registered parties in the UK. And individual candidates for parliament in the UK are only required to submit the signatures of 10 registered voters and a £500 deposit.

Contrary to what those who vigorously defend the two-party system would have us believe, history has shown that third parties and independent candidates, while they certainly haven’t had the same level of electoral success that the Republicans and Democrats have had, have nonetheless played an important role in invigorating American democracy and shaping political discourse, forcing the major parties to incorporate many of their issues and ideas in order to fend off the threat that they represented. This was true of the Populist and Progressive movements, which laid the groundwork for women’s suffrage, party primaries, direct election of senators, initiatives and referenda, child labor laws, social welfare legislation, public education, and the graduated income tax. It was true of George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968, which played a key role in the emergence of the Southern Strategy that the Republicans have made extensive use of over the last 40+ years. And it was true of Ross Perot, who brought the issue of balancing the federal budget to prominence, setting the stage for Bill Clinton’s elimination of the budget deficit, as well as influencing the Republican Contract With America.

The change we need isn’t going to come from Democratic politicians, no matter how eloquent, intelligent, or good-intentioned they may be, working within the context of a fundamentally flawed status quo that undermines political participation to the extremes seen in this country. It’s only going to come when we recognize the need for reforming ballot access laws as a necessary prerequisite to broader political reform.


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    • Big Tex on January 16, 2010 at 22:02

    and have generally enjoyed what I’ve read thus far over here.  I’m looking forward to being a part of the community.

  1. My parents moved from the Upper Midwest to Texas almost thirty years ago, so I’ve occasionally visited that part of the country.  Although I’ve cracked many jokes about Texas, I suppose I’d better reel myself in a little now.  Aside from the curious state of the political environment in the Lone Star State, as detailed in the Texas Monthly, they do have great food and fantastic music.  

    If you visit this site often, you’ll discover that I tend to inject music into many of my diaries and comments.  As a perhaps silly aside, I recently wondered if there might be a special connection between Texas and Tennessee, other than maybe the rivalry between the music industry giants of Nashville and Austin.  Although there are likely more examples, the two songs/videos that follow have led to the raising of this question.

    Once you get past the lengthy lead-in, at about the 1:00 to 1:30 mark, Lynyrd Skynyrd fires up the afterburner…

    George Strait had a few words to say about this apparent connection in the amusing video that follows…

    • dkmich on January 18, 2010 at 11:53

    Political reform is our war cry…  It is why most of us left (in spirit if not in body) dk and call DD home.  

    So how do you think third parties and real political choice will rise again?  Will it be a charismatic candidate out of the blue or something nurtured and grown?   Both will work, one would be quicker.  

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