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Ballot access

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Ballot access rules regulate the conditions under which a ballot measure, candidate or political party is entitled to appear on voters' ballots. Ballot access laws are governed by the states, except when the United States Congress changes laws at the federal level.[1] The process for ballot access varies greatly depending on the state and type of access desired.

Overview of ballot access in the U.S.

The first restrictions on ballot access in the United States had more to do with wealth, gender, race and religion than today's petitions, parties and fees. Voting in the early days of the U.S. government was for white, land-owning, protestant males. Early founding fathers like John Adams believed it would be dangerous to allow more people to participate in elections as it would dissolve distinctions and make voting a common activity rather than a privilege. Other founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin believed wealth, at least, should not have been a determining factor in the ability to vote or hold office. He was more concerned with a man's ability to reason than with his ability to maintain property.[2]

Early elections were irregularly scheduled based on the whim of the leaders of the state. When it was time to hold one, notices were posted and eligible voters would flock to the nearest courthouse to vote. The process of voting depended on the state. Some, like Delaware, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, used a ballot. Others, like Virginia, used public voice voting, making voting a public process rather than a private one.[2]

The first advocates of reforming ballot access restrictions wanted to broaden the field to veterans. Eventually ideas of reform broadened and the necessity to own property in order to vote was replaced by tax requirements. However, those, too, disappeared, and by the middle of the 19th century most economic barriers to voting and serving in a government position were withdrawn.[2] These initial reforms led the way for more, including laws at the federal level, such as the 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments and the Voting Rights Act, which influenced state laws and gave women and African Americans the right to vote and hold office.

Reforms were also made in the way citizens voted. Public voice votes gave way to secret ballots. Secret ballots, also called Australian ballots as that is where the process originated, allowed citizens' choices to be confidential. Instead of announcing who they chose to vote for in front of friends and neighbors, voters could now write their choice down in secret, diminishing the influence of intimidation or bribery. This method was first deemed necessary after the Civil War, when African Americans were threatened with physical violence based on how they voted.[3]

The use of secret ballots gave governments control over who could access ballots. States began limiting who could run for office based on how many signatures a candidate could collect or which party they were running with. As certain parties began to consistently win elections, states began allowing them easier access to ballots. Smaller parties and independent candidates, however, must still prove they have a certain amount of voter support before they are given access to the ballot.[4]

Ballot measures

Ballot Basics
Citizen initiatives
Indirect initiative
Legislative referrals
Citizen initiatives
Indirect initiative
Legislative referrals
Advisory question
Automatic ballot referral
Bond issue
Commission referred
Veto referendum
See also: States with initiative or referendum

The term ballot measure is defined as any question or issue of government that is placed before voters on a ballot to approve or reject. Ballot measures can be local or statewide and can embody anything from constitutional amendments and city charters to statutes and bond issues.

Depending on state laws, ballot measures can be placed on ballots in a number of ways. The ballot initiative process gives voters direct access to state issues by allowing them to initiate, or propose, ballot measures to be put to vote on the ballot by collecting signatures through a petition drive. The legislative referral process allows a state legislature to put a piece of legislation on a ballot for voter approval or rejection. In some states ballot measures can be placed on ballots by commission referral, constitutional convention or automatic ballot referral.

The most available process used in the states to place a ballot measure before citizens is the legislative referral process. Every state but Delaware allows citizens to vote on legislatively-referred constitutional amendments, and 23 states allow citizens to vote on legislatively-referred state statutes. The least available method to place a ballot measure on a ballot is by referral of a commission created by the state legislature or constitution. Only Arizona and Florida have such commissions. The ballot initiative process is used by 26 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and 18 of those states allow voters to initiate constitutional amendments. Constitutional conventions can also be used to put ballot measure before the people. Forty-four states have laws governing how these can be called. One way they can be called is by asking voters through an automatic ballot referral. This process asks voters every so often whether or not a constitutional convention should be held. Five states have automatic referrals every 10 years, Michigan has automatic referrals every 16 years, and eight states have automatic referrals every 20 years.


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Ballot access for major and minor party candidates
Ballot access information by state
AlabamaAlaskaArizonaArkansasCaliforniaColoradoConnecticutDelawareFloridaGeorgiaHawaiiIdahoIllinoisIndianaIowaKansasKentuckyLouisianaMaineMarylandMassachusettsMichiganMinnesotaMississippiMissouriMontanaNebraskaNevadaNew HampshireNew JerseyNew MexicoNew YorkNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOhioOklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth CarolinaSouth DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermontVirginiaWashingtonWest VirginiaWisconsinWyoming
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See also: Ballot access for major and minor party candidates

Candidates are defined as individuals seeking public office. Most states separate candidates into different categories, including political party candidate, independent or nonpartisan candidate and write-in candidate. Political party candidates must identify with one state-recognized political party. In order to get on a ballot, they may have to follow additional rules set by that political party, but they will then have the support of a recognized group, which often means greater publicity and greater access to funding. Independent or nonpartisan candidates do not identify with a political party. Instead, they run on their own accord, gaining ballot access and funding without the support of a recognized group. Write-in candidates can be independent or political party candidates, depending on the laws of the state in which they reside. Write-in candidates often file later than other candidates and are placed on the ballot only if voters physically write their name on their ballot on election day.[5]

Candidates can be placed on the ballot in a number of ways depending on the type of candidate and the state in which the candidate resides. Political party candidates can often gain ballot access by nomination through a convention or primary election. Independent candidates most often have to use the petition method, collecting a specified number of signatures in order to be placed on the ballot. Some states also require political party candidates to use this method. Write-in candidates usually have to file with the state or county, announcing their intention to be a write-in candidate. Since their name does not appear on the ballot, they usually don't have to do much more than that.[5]

Political parties

See also: List of political parties in the United States

As of July 2014, there are 34 distinct and officially recognized political parties in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. Counting the total number of instances of a recognized party, there are 220 total parties in the 50 states (and Washington D.C.). For example, the Democratic and Republican parties are recognized in all 50 states plus D.C., which accounts for 102 of the 220 total parties. This figure is based upon the number of officially recognized political parties and does not include situations where a candidate chooses a party designation or party label to appear next to their name on the ballot. For example, candidates have appeared in Washington under the designation "Happiness Party." That does not signify an actual political party -- rather, it is the label chosen by a candidate to appear next to his or her name on the ballot.[6]

Three minor parties are recognized in more than 10 states:[7]

Additionally, 20 political parties are only officially recognized in one state. Florida officially recognizes 15 political parties, more than any other state.[7]

Total state affiliates for each political party
Political party States
Alaskan Independence Party 1
America's Party 1
American First Party 1
American Party of South Carolina 1
Americans Elect 6
Connecticut Independent Party 1
Conservative Party 1
Constitution Party 14
Delaware Independent Party 1
Democratic Party 51
Ecology Party 1
Green Party 20
Hawaii Independent Party 1
Independence Party 3
Independence Party of Minnesota 1
Independent American Party 4
Justice Party 2
Labor Party 1
Libertarian Party 35
Liberty Union Party 1
Moderate Party 1
Mountain Party 1
Natural Law Party 2
Oregon Independent Party 1
Oregon Progressive Party 1
Peace and Freedom Party 2
Reform Party 3
Republican Party 51
Socialism and Liberation Party 1
Socialist Party 2
Tea Party 1
United Citizens Party 1
Vermont Progressive Party 1
Working Families Party 5

The number of recognized political parties fluctuates regularly, as parties are certified and/or lose official party status. For example, Arkansas requires minor parties to win at least 3 percent of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial or presidential election in order to maintain their recognized status. Those parties have not achieved those requirements in the past several elections, thereby needing to reapply for official certification in the year after the even year election.[7]

Many states distinguish between "major" parties and "minor" parties. The differences between the two can be found in how they put a candidate on the ballot. In all states major parties are granted access to primary elections, allowing them to determine which of their candidates will continue to the general election. Many states, however, do not allow minor parties to participate in primary elections, meaning their candidates can only run in the general election. Many states also allow major parties to select candidates by convention, requiring only a certificate of nomination to register the candidate. In contrast, minor parties are often required to submit petitions to register their candidates, proving to the state that they have a certain percentage of support from the total registered voters before their candidate is placed on the ballot.[7]

The process to be recognized as a political party varies by state. Some states require petitions to be submitted with a certain percentage of registered voter signatures. Others require a certain number of voters to register with the party on their voter registration card before a group is considered a political party. Other states require a candidate to run as a member of a political group before it is recognized as a full party, requiring that candidate to earn a certain percentage of the votes cast in that election for the identified group to be considered a party.[7] For information on a specific state's process, check out that state's ballot access requirements page.

The table below details the officially recognized political parties in each state and links to the party websites.[7]

Court cases

Candidate cases

Below are a selection of court cases relating to candidate ballot access.

Williams v. Rhodes

See also: Williams v. Rhodes

Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, Williams v. Rhodes held that state laws regulating the selection of presidential electors must meet the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.[8]

Bullock v. Carter

See also: Bullock v. Carter

Decided by the by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, Bullock v. Carter held that the Texas primary filing fee system, which required the payment of fees as high as $8,900, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court found that, under this system, "many potential office seekers lacking both personal wealth and affluent backers are, in every practical sense, precluded from seeking the nomination of their chosen party, no matter how qualified they might be and no matter how broad or enthusiastic their popular support."[9][10]

Lubin v. Panish

See also: Lubin v. Panish

Lubin v. Panish, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, held that, absent alternative means of ballot access, states cannot require indigent candidates to pay filing fees they cannot afford. To do so violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the rights of expression and association guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.[11]

Illinois v. Socialist Workers Party

See also: Illinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party

Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, the ruling in Illinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party rendered unconstitutional an Illinois statutory requirement that new political parties and independent candidates for elections in political subdivisions (specifically, Chicago) gather more than the number of signatures required for elections for statewide office.[12]

Anderson v. Celebrezze

See also: Anderson v. Celebrezze

Anderson v. Celebrezze, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, held that Ohio's early filing deadline for independent presidential candidates violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, placing an unconstitutional burden on the voting and associational rights of supporters of independent presidential candidates.[13][14]

Norman v. Reed

See also: Norman v. Reed

Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, Norman v. Reed held that it was unconstitutional for the state of Illinois to require a new political party and its candidates to gather more than 25,000 signatures (the threshold for statewide office) to participate in elections for offices in political subdivisions. The ruling was, in part, a reaffirmation of the Court's earlier decision in Illinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party.[15]

U.S Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

See also: U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton was a 1995 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided against U.S. Term Limits, ruling that states cannot impose qualifications for prospective members of Congress stricter than those specified in the Constitution. The decision invalidated Congressional term limits provisions of 23 states.[16]

See also

External links


  1. U.S. Constitution, "Article I, Section 4," accessed December 16,2013
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 CW Journal, "Voting in Early America," Spring 2007
  3., "Secret Ballot History," accessed December 16, 2013
  4. Oliver Hall, Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States, 29 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 407 (2005)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Based on research conducted by Ballotpedia staff in October-December 2013. This included phone calls to the 50 states and analysis of the state government websites.
  6. Seattle Weekly, "No Rock Party, But Ballots Still Provide Happiness," June 22, 2010
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Based on research conducted by Ballotpedia staff in October-December 2013. This included phone calls to the 50 states and analysis of the state political party websites.
  8., "Williams v. Rhodes - 393 U.S. 23 (1968)," accessed December 26, 2013
  9., "Bullock v. Carter - 405 U.S. 134 (1972)," accessed December 26, 2013
  10. Frontline, "The Constitution and Campaign Finance: A Legal Movement for Change," accessed December 26, 2013
  11., "Lubin v. Panish - 415 U.S. 709 (1974)," accessed December 26, 2013
  12., "Illinois State Bd. of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party - 440 U.S. 173 (1979)," accessed December 26, 2013
  13., "Anderson v. Celebrezze - 460 U.S. 780 (1983)," accessed December 26, 2013
  14. Oyez Project - U.S. Supreme Court Media - IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, "Anderson v. Celebrezze," accessed December 26, 2013
  15., "Norman v. Reed - 502 U.S. 279 (1992)," accessed December 27, 2013
  16., "U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton - 514 U.S. 779 (1994)," accessed December 27, 2013