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Libertarians and Greens sue over the petition process for ballot access

We’ll see about this.

Mark Miller

Ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a group of Texans, along with a number of nonmajor political parties, have sued the secretary of state’s office, alleging that Texas election law discriminates against third-party and independent candidates vying for a spot on the general election ballot.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin, plaintiffs argued that current state law would give nonmajor political parties in 2020 just 75 days to obtain over 80,000 valid signatures to gain ballot access — and that the cost of doing so could cost more than $600,000.

Currently, third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party can secure a spot on the general election ballot by either having at least one candidate who wins more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle, or by collecting a certain number of required signatures. That 5% threshold will soon be lowered to 2% of the vote in one of the past five general elections once a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year takes effect Sept. 1.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party, meanwhile, are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the required paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures, which depends on which office they’re seeking.

For both third-party and independent candidates, signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or participate in another party’s convention that year.

“Collecting signatures by hand is inherently time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Mark Miller, a plaintiff in the case and a two-time Libertarian candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, said in a news release. “And collecting 80,000-plus valid signatures in the limited time allowed under Texas law is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggested that Texas could modernize its signature petition procedure to help alleviate the burden they say has been placed on them. Plaintiffs pointed to Arizona, which they said has a secretary of state who recently implemented an online platform to allow voters to sign nomination petitions electronically — instead of in person and on paper.

Let me start by saying that if the minor parties win the right to collect electronic petition signatures so their candidates can get on the ballot in a state where electronic voter registration is illegal, that will be infuriating. The latter is by far the bigger affront to democracy.

Before I get to the main part of my analysis, let me add some more details about this from the Statesman.

State law offers three paths for candidates to land on the general election ballot:

Political parties that received at least 20 percent of the vote in the previous election for governor nominate their candidates for state and county office and the U.S. Congress via primary elections, with the winners advancing to the general election. “Since at least 1900, only the Democratic Party and Republican Party have qualified,” the lawsuit said.

Major-party candidates pay filing fees ranging from $75 to $5,000 or by submitting petitions with 5,000 signatures for statewide office. The law does not set a time limit on when they can begin collecting those signatures, the lawsuit said. Minor parties must nominate general-election candidates at a convention where participants equal at least 1% of the number of Texans who voted for governor in the prior election, or 83,717 participants in 2020. No minor party has met the 1% requirement in at least 50 years, the lawsuit said, but Texas law allows candidates to collect voter signatures within a 75-day window to make up the difference.

The tight deadline and limits on who may sign the petitions – registered voters cannot sign if they voted in a recent primary, attended another party’s convention or signed another party’s nominating petition for the same election – put minor-party candidates at a significant disadvantage, the lawsuit said.

Independent candidates are allowed on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures equal to 1% of the voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Petitions cannot be circulated until after the major parties hold a primary or primary runoff election, meaning candidates could have 114 days, or as little as 30 days, to collect signatures, the lawsuit said. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies,” the lawsuit said.

Having to collect about 80,000 valid signatures by hand can cost $600,000, largely to hire people to circulate petitions, the lawsuit said. The result is an election scheme that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who are not wealthy to participate in the political arena, said Oliver Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Competitive Democracy, which worked on the lawsuit without charge along with the Shearman & Sterling law firm, which has an office in Austin. “We think the federal courts will recognize that Supreme Court precedent prohibits Texas from limiting participation in its electoral process to those with financial means,” Hall said.

So the first thing to realize is that this cycle is an especially challenging one for parties or candidates who need to go the petition route to get on the ballot. That includes the Libertarians, whose best performance in 2018 was 3.42% in the Comptroller’s race. The Libertarians and to a lesser extent the Greens have benefited in the past from the Democrats not competing in all of the statewide judicial races, leaving at least one slot with a Republican running against an L and a G, with the two of them combining for 20% or so of the vote; there were two such races in 2014. In 2018 Dems had candidates in all of the judicial races, and that left the Libertarians (the Greens were not on the ballot because none of their candidates got to five percent in 2016) out in the cold. The other thing about 2018, you might recall, is that it shattered records for off-year turnout, which is why that “one percent of the Governor’s race” (*) requirement is as high as it is. Had the Ls and Gs needed petition signatures for 2016, they’d have only needed about 47,000 of them based on gubernatorial turnout from 2014. In addition, primary turnout, especially on the Dem side, is going to be through the roof, meaning that the pool of eligible petition-signers will be that much smaller. However you feel about the plight of the minor parties and would-be independents, this is a bad year to have to collect petition signatures.

The other fact to reckon with is that this isn’t the first time a federal lawsuit (which this one is, according to the Statesman) has been filed over this requirement. Back in 2004, after Ralph Nader tried and failed to get enough signatures to be on the ballot as an independent Presidential candidate, he sued and ultimately lost; his subsequent appeal was rejected. Federal judge Lee Yeakel ruled at the time that Texas’ ballot access laws did not create an unconstitutional burden. I’m not exactly sure what is different this time, other than the number of plaintiffs, but who knows. This is the main question, at least as far as I’m concerned, that will need to be addressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For what it’s worth, while I have no warmth for the third parties, I’d be all right with a petition process that gave them more time, and even that allowed them to solicit any voter, not just non-primary voters. If and when we get electronic voter registration, I’d concede on the electronic petition gathering item. Beyond that, I don’t see much of a problem. We’ll see what the judge says.

(*) There were 8,343,443 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race, one percent of which is 83,434. I have no idea where that 83,717 figure comes from, unless it’s some kind of weird typo.

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3 Comments

  1. blank says:

    Whenever I hear or read anything on third parties and independents, I feel the need to point out that a necessary election condition for third parties and independents to be considered anything other than spoilers is ranked choice voting. It’s obvious to me that third parties and billionaires, like Howard Schultz, should use their resources to push for RCV instead of quixotic presidential campaigns. While I am unaffiliated with FairVote (www.fairvote.org), I do send them money.

  2. David Fagan says:

    Democrats and republicans need each other, without one or the other the U.S. becomes what it fears the most, a one party system. They should both, actually, support third parties to an extent. I’m sure republicans support the green while democrats support libertarians.

  3. Mainstream says:

    blank, I think ranked voting would work well with an informed electorate or when there are only 3 or 4 candidates in a high visibility contest. I cannot imagine how it would work in the upcoming Houston City Council District C contest where 13 candidates have thus far announced.