Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ballot access hurdles

I've written before about the sort of electoral reforms we should push for to make third parties (and any sort of moderate slate) viable. Whether you support a third-party candidate or or a confirmed Democrat or Republican, fixing these problems shouldn't be controversial: it's a simple matter of fairness in most cases.

One thing I left out of the earlier post was specific examples of ballot-access problems.

For example, here in Minnesota, getting a new party on the ballot requires gathering signatures equivalent to 5 percent of the vote in the last statewide election. For 2008, that means 110,000 signatures. There's a reason no party has ever been recognized using this method since the law was enacted in 1913.

Instead, most third parties run not as a party but as a bunch of independent candidates, who only need 2,000 signatures each -- though they only have two weeks in which to do it. Then they hope that one of their candidates nets 5 percent of the vote, which entitles them to "major party" status the next time around.

At least Minnesota has a back-door option. In many states, such as Tennessee, not only do you need to collect a whole bunch of signatures, but once you get on you don't get your party name listed. Anyone who isn't a Democrat or a Republican is labeled simply "independent."

In Texas, you wait until after that year's state primary elections to start collecting signatures, and then you have 60 days to collect signatures of registered voters equivalent to 1 percent of the vote total in the last election. However, to be an independent candidate you cannot have participated in those primary elections -- either as a voter or a candidate -- and nobody who signs your petition can have done that, either. So in order to get on the ballot, both you and your signatories are locked out of the regular election process that year.

It's not like these are simply old laws that have never been updated. In the current session of Congress there's a campaign financing bill, S936, that has been co-sponsored by Arlen Specter and Richard Durbin. It sets up a public campaign-financing fund for Senate candidates that receive a certain amount of tiny ($5, to be exact) donations. The ostensible purpose is to make it easier for nonincumbents and independent candidates to run for office.

However, Democrats and Republicans need 2,000 such donations. Everybody else needs 3,000.

(To check for yourself, go to and search for "S936". Then scroll down to Section 505 and read Subsection (b).)

Beyond that you have the usual travails of minor-party candidates: not getting media coverage, not getting invited to participate in debates, etc.

Most of those side effects are market-driven and not properly addressed by legislation. But ballot access is another matter. States have a legitimate interest in setting reasonable requirements to getting on the ballot, to weed out crackpots and prevent ballots from being hundreds of names long. But it's manifestly clear that the current limits go way beyond reasonable. And once on the ballot, candidates should be able to identify themselves by party name and enjoy all the othe benefits afforded their major-party rivals.

Then there's the biggie: the winner-take-all nature of our elections, which encourages people to choose the least objectionable major-party candidate rather than take a chance on a third-party contender. Getting on the ballot is the first step; passing instant-runoff voting is the second.

Again, whatever your political stripe, you should support these efforts. There are some technical hurdles to be overcome, but philosophically we should agree that election laws should treat all candidates equally, and encourage people to vote for the person that best reflects their viewpoint, not try to game a system rigged to favor the two major parties.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've nailed it well here. And as a Minneapolis resident, I assume you know that voters likes instant runoff voting -- the 65% yes vote there was similar to votes around the country. FairVote Minnesota does great work on this issue at

3/30/2007 9:34 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

As you may have noticed, I have both FairVote and the national Instant Runoff Voting site listed in my sidebar. Both are excellent resources. And I wrote about Minnesota IRV efforts back in May 2006, when the Minneapolis IRV ballot question became a reality.

3/30/2007 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post repeats common myths that are perpetuated by IRV propaganda groups, like

Consider this hypothetical election using IRV:

% of voters - their vote
34% Obama > Edwards > McCain
17% Edwards > Obama > McCain
15% Edwards > McCain > Obama
34% McCain > Edwards > Obama

In this IRV election, Edwards is eliminated first, and then Obama goes on to win. But wait! 66% of people prefer Edwards to Obama (and to McCain). Yet Edwards loses?! This leaves McCain fans with a tactical incentive to vote for their second choice, Edwards, so that they don't get their last choice, Obama. It also makes McCain a spoiler, since without him, Edwards would handily beat Obama.

So much for the myths that IRV elects majority winners and eliminates spoilers..

And why is IRV always proposed as a faster "one step" solution to the traditional delayed runoff? IRV leads to two-party duopoly in all four countries where it's seen long-term large-scale use (the Libertarian Reform Caucus calls it a "bullet in the foot"), whereas top-two runoff has escaped duopoly in 21-23 of the 27 countries that use it. If people want the expediency of IRV, why not just hold an instant top-two runoff instead, where the top-two vote getters are pitted head-to-head based on the ordered preferences of each ballot?

Or better yet, use the superior Range Voting. It is completely spoiler free, simpler to use and implement, and produces a much greater voter satisfaction index than other alternative voting methods.

Get the facts at

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA

3/30/2007 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One should also note that IRV tends to elect extremists when voters are honest.

Of course, many voters aren't honest, but strategic, which is why IRV always inevitably leads to two-party duopoly, and is lethal to third parties.

3/30/2007 1:58 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Rangevoting looks interesting. Your example of IRV voting strikes me as highly contrived, and assumes a simplistic implementation of IRV. But I'd be willing to give rangevoting a look.

3/30/2007 2:45 PM  

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