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Opinion: Ballot process is rigged against some third party candidates
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Gainesville resident Joe Kelenfy approaches a voting machine at the Hall County Government Center in Gainesville, Thursday, July 19, 2018, during the penultimate day of early voting for the Republican primary runoff between Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp. - photo by David Barnes

While many questions have been raised in recent months about how Georgia handles registration and qualification of potential voters, another election issue is also deserving of attention: adding candidates to the ballot.

The Libertarian Party of Georgia last week appealed a federal court’s decision upholding existing election law that makes it virtually impossible for third-party candidates or independents to seek election to congressional seats in Georgia.

The Libertarians hope to overturn the current law, thus making it easier for someone other than a Democrat or a Republican to offer for election to the U.S. Congress from Georgia.

Under the existing law, potential candidates for the U.S. House who are not nominated through the primary process by the two major parties must obtain signatures from at least 5% of the registered voters in a specific congressional district. While the districts vary slightly in size, the requirement generally means at least 20,000 legitimate signatures must be obtained to get a name on the ballot.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

Signatures must be verified by local voting officials, and of course are subject to all the challenges that seem to be an issue with other voting-related documentation. Simply put, if you want to be assured of 20,000 good ones, you need to start with an awful lot more.

The standard for approval for ballot access in congressional races is so high that it has never been met since the current law was enacted in 1943, though many candidates have tried.

Oddly, the 5% standard for petition signatures in state election law does not apply to all election campaigns.

Third-party or independent candidates who want to run for statewide offices, such as governor, can do so by obtaining verified signatures of 1% of registered voters. The Libertarians in particular have fielded a number of candidates for statewide office, some of whom have fared well enough in final voting results to affect the outcome of races, without winning office themselves.

A federal judge in 2016 ruled that even 1% was too high for potential presidential candidates in the state; he lowered the petition requirement from roughly 50,000 expected as 1% of voters statewide to only 7,500 names, a supposedly temporary fix that was to remain in place until the legislature enacted a new law.

As with many things in state law, there is no consistency. But the expectations for congressional candidates not nominated by the two major parties are unnecessarily high and serve no legitimate purpose other than keeping Republicans and Democrats entrenched in office.

According to the lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party, Georgia has the most stringent demand for third-party congressional candidates of any state, and as a result has more unopposed candidates for congressional office than other states. The lawsuit cites a period from 2012-2016 during which there were 15 unopposed races for congressional seats in Georgia, roughly a third of all such races during that time.

We agree there should be some minimal threshold for ballot access to keep voting manageable and weed out those who would add their name to the ballot on a lark (for proof of such actions, one need look no farther than the online resumes being gathered by the governor as he contemplates an appointment for U.S. senator). But the baseline needs to be realistic, it needs to be consistent across the ballot, and standards for verification of voter signatures need to be specific and defensible.

If 7,500 signatures statewide are sufficient to be considered as a candidate for president, does 20,000 signatures in one of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts make sense?

It’s hard to look at what is happening in our federal government and not think there would be some advantage to having legitimate congressional candidates who do not come from either the Republican or Democratic parties. When partisanship is more important than rational governing, having a few independent voices as part of the political mix certainly has some appeal.

We also have to believe there are some solid potential candidates interested in running for office who do not do so because they cannot pledge allegiance to the existing party behemoths nor meet their litmus tests for nomination. We have become so accustomed to the dysfunction of our existing two-party system that we forget that they have not always been the foundation of the nation’s political system.

We are firmly in favor of any initiative that leads to more and better candidates for political office. Having ballot access restrictions for congressional races that are more stringent than for other races in the state, and more stringent than other states, makes sense only from the perspective of those committed to maintaining power for existing political parties to the exclusion of all others.

Unfortunately, changing the law is a job for the state legislature, which is a body of Democrats and Republicans. Their motivation for doing anything that might weaken their respective partisan positions is non-existent. The only way for it to get done is for those who are truly statesmen and leaders to make it happen because it’s the right thing to do, or for the courts to order it done, which is what the Libertarians hope to see happen.

We would settle for either ending if it means more legitimate candidates on the ballot come Election Day.