Independents Feel Secure Despite Ballot Access Hurdles Ahead

If you’re a voter who usually doesn’t vote for Republicans or Democrats, you are probably very familiar with a constant barrage of people always yelling at you to “vote for someone who can actually win,” or berating you for “wasting your vote” and “throwing your vote away.”  When you are a candidate running for office under a label as something other than a Democrat or Republican, you hear the same things. In fact, as a candidate, the attacks are likely worse as many consider a candidate fair game for anything someone decides to throw at them.

And yet, we constantly complain enough people don’t vote in our elections or there aren’t enough good candidates running for office and we wonder why.  We see others hold the proverbial clothespin firmly on their nose and vote for candidates they really don’t like and so it goes.  And honestly, unless we have decided to totally disengage from the system, we all do it at some point. In most states, such behavior is essentially required thanks to our unfair and discriminatory ballot access laws. We feel like one of those raccoons trapped in a box that only has to let go of the bait in order to break free of the trap.  Despite the obvious answer to our freedom, our hands have continued to hold tight to that bait.

Election laws throughout the country have been intentionally written to set up barriers that make it almost impossible for anyone to run as a candidate who doesn’t identify or feel represented by the Republican or Democrat parties. In some parts of the country, these laws were initially designed to keep suspected Communists off the ballot.  In other areas of our nation, the use of ballot laws blocked black people from being able to run for office. Similarly, state legislators have perpetrated our current system with no respect for a wide spectrum of individuals, both candidates and voters alike, who choose differently. Upon close examination, it’s clear to see how the political establishment has almost always attempted to place Americans inside carefully crafted pegboards designed to fit only certain types of pegs; particularly just two kinds.  It’s kind of like being presented with the illusion of many choices in a grocery store but in the checkout line, you are charged an extra fee if you choose a brand of mustard that the majority feels is too spicy or you otherwise shouldn’t buy.

When it comes to allowing an open, fair and spirited electoral process among all equally qualified individuals, it is as if lawmakers truly subscribe to Henry Ford’s famous words of wisdom regarding choice of automobile color:  “You can have any color so long as it is black.”

Irony has always been quite a funny tool in politics as our hearty leaders call for robust competition in nearly every sector of our economy and our lives but for the very sector that jeopardizes their own survival.  

It’s funny how competition quickly becomes a terrible idea when you don’t feel secure in what you’re selling.

We are living in unprecedented times of disruption, growth, technological advancement, change and even displacement in almost every segment for our lives.  Grocery stores selling milk, tomatoes and macaroni are competing with online drones that can zip those items – and more – directly to your front door in hours.  Hitchhiking was once unthinkable. Now, it is uber cool to not only get in the car with a stranger but we are willing to pay surge pricing for it. Big box retail stores are becoming the new Blockbuster graveyards.  The list could go on and on of the change happening at present. Politics and government, while certainly slow to change, is certainly not immune. No one can claim the politics of 2018 is in any way the same political environment of 2012 and 2018 is definitely not as “antiquated” as 2002. Yet, throughout the country, laws deciding who can run as a candidate on an election ballot have seen very little movement toward a more independent and open electorate.  

Election laws vary substantially by state and it would take a small treatise to explain them all.  Some states have essentially no barriers for Independents, others allow recognized “Third Parties” like the Libertarian Party or the Green Party on an election ballot but subject Independent candidates to an entirely different set of rules.  Other states require all candidates to collect a small and relatively insignificant number of signatures while some have no signature requirements but require a very expensive filing fee to be paid to the state in order to run in a race. Many signature requirements are based on the number of registered voters in a state or district or can sometimes be determined only by the number of voters who actually voted the last time a particular contest election was on the ballot. Needless to say, when a candidate decides to run, there are already countless considerations but deciding to run as an Independent presents an entirely different conundrum when it comes to ballot access.  Consequently, if you are an independent candidate or a voter who wants to support one, you must not only raise money against an entrenched political system but you must also overcome other obstacles only assigned to you and you alone, just to get on the ballot.

People often wonder why ballot access even matters, reasoning that if a candidate can’t get a modicum of support from individuals willing to sign a petition to start with, such a candidacy is likely doomed from the beginning.  First, there’s the basic question of fairness. Far and away, most Republicans or Democrats never have to go through such a litmus test before gaining instant ballot placement. And let’s face it, there are plenty of Republicans and Democrats we could name right now who, for a variety of reasons, could never meet the same signature requirements that are asked of independents. Yet, these candidates are put on the ballot anyway with almost no special requirements.  This is why ballot access is also critically important to Republicans and Democrats.  With the current laws in place, candidates will fight the path of least resistance and qualify on the ballot with the party that has the best chance of winning or can help them accomplish whatever their other goals may be.  Party philosophy and principles will likely have little to do with their decision to run as a “member” of a certain party.  So even if you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should certainly care about ballot access and work to reform our ballot access laws.

Secondly, ballot access comes down to money. It takes thousands of dollars just to run a small city or county race. Forget running for Congress.  In 2017, the state of Georgia experienced the nation’s most expensive race for US House when approximately 60 Million dollars was spent in a special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Tom Price (R-06) who resigned to take the helm at the Department of Health and Human Services.  When we force Independents to jump through discriminatory and often subjective election laws to access the ballot, they must spend hundreds of dollars before they can even get out of the gate to run in even smaller races. Meanwhile, their opponents have been able to use money from the start to buy ads, hire staff and find volunteers. Those opponents can use their money to win the race, not collect signatures.

Most individuals have never petitioned for ballot access, especially lawmakers supporting these very laws, and therefore, have very little awareness of how difficult the process truly is or what exactly is involved.  First of all, most petitions will accept signatures only from active and registered voters who live in narrowly confined, often gerrymandered districts. It is clearly established that a lot of people simply do not vote; especially in local elections.  In the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. Elections Project, run by a political scientist at the University of Florida, estimated that around 100 Million people did not vote in the presidential election. That’s more people who didn’t vote than those who voted for any single candidate running in the election!  It is no secret to those who work in petitioning that upon entering a very large neighborhood for purposes of gathering signatures, the active voter rolls will almost always leave you with less than half the homes to cover.  This means that volunteers must cover a substantial number of neighborhoods, regardless of how large one may appear on paper, to collect their signatures. Petitioning outside public places or setting up in high traffic locations present their own issues, dealing with may who are not registered to vote, do not understand the electoral process, or most frequently, are visiting the area and do not live inside the district lines and are therefore not eligible to sign the candidate’s petition.  Most problematic, however, is gaining the appropriate permissions (and often paying more fees) to acquire access to set up space in locations in order to petition week after week.

With all the negatives associated with ballot laws throughout the nation, is there anything to be optimistic about? Enthusiastically, Yes! First off, Maine recently not only made a substantial change to its electoral system with Instant Run Off Voting which will allow its electorate to truly vote for the candidates of their choice without the usual fear tactics, but citizens also fought back attempts by entrenched lawmakers to reverse it!  And secondly, as a long time Ballot Access Advocate who has canvassed over many years for both candidates running under traditional party labels and alternative candidates, 2018 has thus far presented markedly different canvassing environments for Independent candidates.

In years past, most Independents did not move beyond merely stating an intention to run for office in my home state of Georgia. This is primarily to blame in part to some of the most archaic ballot access law for Independents in the country.  However, this year, 7 Independents have already fully paid their qualifying fees to run. And Unite Atlanta has been made aware that at least one Independent candidate has already completed petitioning requirements, collecting all 1,600 required signatures necessary to be on the ballot.  And during petitioning, another Independent candidate is being warmly welcomed onto a local practice field by parents and the supervising coach, invited to return to petition again during optimal times. This kind of reception for anyone but a traditional party candidate, especially one circulating petitions for ballot access, is a very different experience for Independent candidates.  Even non-traditional Third Party candidates do not seem to be receiving this kind of open and hospitable treatment from voters, at least speaking from an anecdotal experience of petitioning for such candidates earlier this year.

2018 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for Independents, even facing the daunting challenges that lie ahead in the minefield of ballot access regulations and onerous signature requirements.  Even if the breakthroughs for Independents aren’t as large as we would like to see, the year will still be a turning point, setting strong foundations for new ways to ask the questions and provide the answers for the common sense solutions we all want to discuss.

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Amanda Swafford has served as the Chapter Lead of Unite Atlanta since August 2017.  

She won her first election to county wide office in 2000 in Sacramento, California, while attending graduate school.  In 2010, she was elected to the Flowery Branch, Ga City Council.

After leaving the City Council, Ms. Swafford continued her involvement with local government and later ran for office as the Libertarian candidate for US Senate, becoming only the second woman to ever be nominated for US Senate in Georgia on March 8, 2014. After the US Senate race, Ms. Swafford became an advocate for Ballot Access for Independent and Third Party candidates, raising funds to support many efforts toward the cause throughout the state.  Ms. Swafford is frequently interviewed by media and gives presentations to groups on the importance of ballot access reform.

Views and opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Unite America.