Ballot Access

Interview with Phil Huckelberry

There is plenty of talk about “democracy,” and a part of the democratic process is casting ballots for the candidate of one’s choice. One would think, therefore, that ballot access (how a candidate’s name comes to appear on a ballot) is fairly uniform across a country, such as the United States. Guess again. The following is an interview with Phil Huckelberry, the Co-chair of Green Party US Ballot Access Committee. [Ed]

A.J. Segneri: Provide for the readers your background in politics and activism, plus on ballot access.

Phil Huckelberry: I’ve been involved in the Green Party since 2000.  I was Co-Chair of the Green National Committee from 2007-2009, and I’ve been Chair of the Illinois Green Party since 2008, in addition to a bunch of other committee hats.

The national party established a separate Ballot Access Committee in 2005 and I’ve been one of the two co-chairs of that since its inception.  In that role I’ve also been the Green Party’s member on the board of the Coalition for Free and Open Elections, Richard Winger’s ballot access rights organization.

AJS: Could you explain what ballot access is, and why this is important for political parties, particularly important for third parties?

PH: Ballot access generally refers to the ability to place a candidate on an official election ballot.  It is usually thought of in terms of a party’s ability to run candidates for public office. If a party does not have ballot access in a particular state, that means that it cannot field candidates for office in that state.

Ballot access laws are almost entirely state creations.  There are almost no relevant federal laws, and there usually aren’t relevant local laws either.  The rules vary widely from state to state.  In Mississippi, if you declare you have a party, the state says, okay, you’re a party, and then you can run candidates. In  North Carolina, you have to collect about 95,000 valid signatures from registered voters.  For reference, the Libertarians did this for the 2008 election, but it cost them $200,000 to do it.

There is also a distinction between securing and holding ballot access.  “Securing” means getting ballot access initially, which usually requires collecting petition signatures.  “Holding” means that a party in a given state can maintain their ballot access from one election to the next, which usually means that a candidate of the party got a high enough percentage of the vote.  In some states, securing and/or holding are based on partisan registration numbers.

If a party doesn’t have ballot access, it can’t run candidates.  If a party can’t run candidates, it’s essentially not a party at all, just a political club.  Third parties often refer to fighting to achieve lofty ballot access hurdles as a struggle for their very existence. One other point which should be stressed: it is very common for a state-level party to expend more energy just to get on to the ballot than they expend on behalf of their candidates once they’re on the ballot.  It can be such grueling, exhaustive work just to come into legal existence that it will burn out volunteers months before Election Day.

AJS: What is the current status for ballot access for the Green Party?

PH: As of today, we have presidential ballot access in 21 states.  For the beginning of May, that’s actually pretty good. In a lot of states, ballot access is lost and regained with each election cycle, so you wouldn’t expect to be much higher than 20 at this point in the year.

The best the Green Party ever did was 44 ballot lines in 2000.  Our goal is to reach 45 or more line this year.  It takes better advance planning, and it takes the party understanding that you can’t backload all of the work.  It remains to be seen if the party has gotten the memo on this.

AJS: There are law restrictions for third parties to run for office. From your experience, have these laws increased over time or are these laws just reactionary when specific third parties do well in their respective state?

PH: In the late 19th century these kinds of restrictions didn’t really exist at all, so if you look at the big picture, the laws have only gotten worse over time.  One of the ironies is that these laws only started to come into existence in parallel with the emergence of the partisan primary, a Progressive Era reform designed to mitigate the control of the old political machines.  As the primaries emerged, it created a perceived need to define who could or couldn’t have a primary, and so by extension, who would or wouldn’t be legally considered a party.

If you just look across the last decade, you’ll find a mixed bag.  Here in Illinois, the requirements just keep getting worse.  The state is under the firm control of a machine kingpin named Michael Madigan, who has been Speaker of the House for 28 of the last 30 years.  A lot of the changes have been subtle but when there are already absurdly difficult laws on the books, each small change can have a multiplicative effect.

In some states, it’s gotten easier.  Part of this, I think, is just cyclical, and does have to do with the relative strength of third parties in those areas.  Part of it just seems to be random. Often it just takes one person ascending to a role of prominence in the state legislature to generate a lot of legislation which could be good or bad for ballot access.

But on the whole the situation is worse, because of the emergence of the so-called “Top Two” system, which is now in place in Washington and California.  “Top Two” has been presented as a “reform” which will supposedly tend to lead to more “moderate” candidates on the general election ballot.  In reality “Top Two” is a ploy on the part of moneyed interests to further control the ballot.

Instead of partisan primaries followed by a general election, all candidates are lumped together on a single primary ballot, and the two candidates with the highest vote totals advance to the general election.  A lot of people have been duped by this because they’ve wanted a “blanket primary” where they can vote for whomever they want, but the effective – and intended – result of “Top Two” is to make it so that the most heavily bankrolled candidates have an even bigger primary advantage.

One intention side effect of “Top Two” is that third party candidates almost never make it onto the general election ballot.  It’s telling that even the Democratic and Republican Parties in Washington and California opposed “Top Two”.  Money is so out of control in politics that the state-level corporate parties are often more democratic in their processes than processes which just rely on who can bring in the most money.

AJS: If you were the head of a board of elections, what ideal things would you implement in order to make ballot access more fair for candidates?

PH: A lot of the elections agencies have little control over the laws. That said, what I’d like to see from election agencies all across the country is a dedication to extreme transparency in how they do their jobs.  If you look at the websites of various state election agencies, some have excellent information about what it takes to run for office, and some provide almost no useful information at all.  It shouldn’t be so hard to run for office, and even in a state with draconian laws, elections agencies should be striving to make information as simple and accessible as possible.

AJS:  Do you think there are individuals in the two major parties that are really out to get third parties and independent candidates, or is that more paranoia?

PH: The corporate duopoly by its very nature is out to get third parties and independent candidates.  I don’t think it’s personal most of the time, or at least it’s no more personal than politics would generally be.

2012 is a redistricting year, and Illinois is a prime example of the politics of redistricting.  Illinois lost one congressional seat (from 19 to 18).  In theory this would mean that two incumbents would have to run against one another.  But in practice, the Democrats who control Springfield created a map where every Democratic incumbent was given a safe district, four Republican incumbents were thrown into two districts so two of them would for sure be knocked out in the primary, and a district got invented out of thin air with no incumbent, designed for a new Democrat to take over.  Even two Green Party candidates who ran for Congress in 2010 were drawn four blocks or less outside of their old districts.

Modern politics is largely about eliminating competition.  The Powers That Be in state legislatures are not much different from the robber barons of 110-120 years ago.  Not only do incumbents want to stay incumbents, they don’t even want to have to run against anyone.  They don’t want to have to show up for political forums and be asked tough questions.  A lot of these people have no sense of responsibility to their constituents – they just see their positions as jobs that they were given through friends or family.

AJS:  What have been the more interesting experiences you have had when working with a specific state to get Greens on the ballot?

PH: One of the more puzzling challenges we’ve encountered is that of it being really hard for a state party to get on the ballot, but once they do, it’s astonishingly easy for a random individual to declare themselves to be a Green and become a candidate of the party, even for high-level office.

In 2008, we had an individual widely known to be a neo-Nazi try and run for Congress as a Green.  We had to file an objection against his nominating petitions to get him thrown off the ballot.  He came back around in 2010, and filed in a district he didn’t even live in, and we had to file another objection. The  party had no real say in these situations.  The objections were based on the paperwork, not on the individual not being an actual Green.  Since these were offices where we otherwise hadn’t intended to field candidates, if he had gotten on the ballot, he would have de facto won the primaries, and it could have been extremely embarrassing for us.

One problem which has plagued state Green Parties for a long time is that they become real political parties with legal rights and privileges, but their leadership still thinks primarily in terms of the party being identified by its position on political issues.  In the eyes of most voters, a party is defined by its candidates, not by whatever lengthy platform document it may be able to offer. This means in turn that a state party needs to have people with administrative and legal prowess in particular positions, to help make sure that the party is staying compliant with various legal requirements, and to help make sure that candidates who can properly represent the party get assistance with getting on the ballot, while candidates who have nothing to do with the party don’t get such assistance. For a party like ours, where a lot of people who come to us have an inherent distrust of power, and who often aren’t very good at administrative matters, it can be that much harder to deal with state laws and administrative policies.

AJS: Where can someone learn more about ballot access?

PH: The national Green Party is tracking 2012 presidential ballot access at Green Party of the United States 2012 Presidential Campaign 

Richard Winger maintains an invaluable blog called Ballot Access News:

A.J. Segneri is a long-time activist. He is currently the Executive Director for the Foundation for a United Front based in Springfield, IL. A.J. can be reach at: Read other articles by A.J., or visit A.J.'s website.