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How Republicans and Democrats prevent independent candidates from getting on the ballot

The two major parties use outdated laws to make sure most voters only have two choices — and not particularly good choices at that.

by Reed Galen /
Image: Evan McMullin
Evan McMullin announces his presidential campaign as an independent candidate on August 10, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.George Frey / Getty Images file
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Republican and Democratic hegemony over American politics began more than 150 years ago when the Whigs folded in the 1850s and were replaced by the GOP, at the time the anti-slavery party. In the decades since, we have seen a few independent or third-party efforts flare up, but never for long and never very successfully.

As the two parties’ duopoly formed at the ballot box, they used their official authority to restrict and prevent political outsiders from fully participating in national and local elections. Across the country, these limitations and barriers to entry remain strong as Republicans and Democrats use arcane rules and outdated laws to make sure most voters only have two choices — and not particularly good choices at that.

Competition is a vital component to any competitive market. Without motivational pressure from a wide variety of incumbents, mainstream competitors such as Republicans and Democrats fail to innovate. Eventually, this failure leads to the best interests of the constituents taking a back seat, either due to an inability or an unwillingness to do better.

Competition is a vital component to any competitive market. Without motivational pressure from a wide variety of incumbents, mainstream competitors fail to innovate.

For example, in Texas the filing deadline (the date by which a candidate must declare they are running for a particular office) is the December of the preceding year. To be eligible to appear on the 2018 ballot this November, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and independents all had to file their paperwork for office no later than December 11, 2017 — nearly a year before the general election.

For candidates running as part of a mainstream party, this might make sense. Texas’ primary election is in early March. For independents, though, the rule makes much less sense. Most state ballots, even those sent to absentee voters, will not be printed until August or September of an election year.

Texas could easily move the filing deadline for independent candidates to June (after all the primary runoff elections are completed) without burdening the Lone Star State’s electoral system. So why don’t they? Because the Republicans who run the executive and legislative branches (and let’s be honest, the Democrats, too) are not interested in making it easier for new competition to enter the market.

A couple of states over in Arizona, the powers that be use a different method to reduce the number of potential independent candidates vying for statewide. If you are a Republican or Democrat, the two major parties in Arizona, you only need to collect about 6,000 valid signatures to appear on the ballot. Dare to be an independent, though, and the number is six times higher — around 37,000 valid petitions are necessary. Given the financial and organizational hurdles to collecting so many signatures (in reality, to ensure they turn in the needed number of valid signatures, a candidate would probably need to collect something closer to 50,000) only self-funding or candidates with independent notoriety are likely to achieve this. If the two major parties aren’t concerned about competition, why do they make it so hard for independents to compete?

Of course, a candidate could attempt to compete for the Green or Libertarian Party lines but this only solves the ballot access issue. The larger issue, similar to that of independent candidates, is that voters either see the Greens and Libertarians as fringe groups that haven’t won or are unlikely to be successful, perpetuating the wasted-vote theory.

Perhaps the most odious and least known way voters are deprived of more diverse choices, though, are so-called “sore loser” laws.

Perhaps the most odious and least known way voters are deprived of more diverse choices, though, are so-called “sore loser” laws. In 44 states across the country, if a candidate participates in a partisan primary and loses, they are prevented by state law from appearing on the general election ballot as an independent.

Why does this matter? Primary elections historically have very low turnout rates, meaning that in many cases the most strident candidate — left and right — succeeds by appealing to each party’s activist base. By the time November rolls around, neither major-party candidate may be representative of a state or district’s voters, the majority of whom likely did not vote in the primary. This electoral polarization can in turn lead to legislative polarization in state houses and on Capitol Hill.

These problems are entrenched, but solutions are possible. In 2006, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Connecticut Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. Lieberman, understanding that he was still broadly popular among Nutmeg State voters, changed his registration to Connecticut for Lieberman/Independent, ran in the general election, and was returned to the Senate by a wide margin.

Image: Joe Lieberman
U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman celebrates his victory over Democratic Party-endorsed candidate Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Alan Schlesinger on Nov. 7, 2006, in Hartford, Connecticut.Bob Child / AP

More recently in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2010 to the Sarah Palin-backed Republican Joe Miller. Like Lieberman, Murkowski (and her family) are well-known stalwarts of Alaskan politics. After her loss, she opted to run as a write-in candidate that November, and like Lieberman, won her re-election campaign.

The odds of candidates losing in their chosen primaries and winning as independents or write-in candidates remain low, of course, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Simply put, Republican and Democratic leaders don’t want competition in the political process. They know, as do increasingly large numbers of voters, that neither major party puts the interests of the people before partisan priorities. Now is the time to change this — and we will likely have to do it state by state.

Voters must demand the opportunity to judge all candidates on their merits first, and on their party labels a distant second, if at all. It’s time to break down the walls to ballot access for independent candidates and new parties and give America what it desperately needs: Competition in its politics.

Reed Galen is a political consultant and chief strategist of the Serve America Movement. He tweets at @reedgalen.

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