Ballot Access - Overview of Ballot Access

Overview of Ballot Access

Each state has its own ballot access laws to determine who may appear on ballots and who may not. According to Article I, Section 4, of the United States Constitution, the authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of federal elections is up to each State, unless Congress legislates otherwise.

The primary argument put forward by States for restricting ballot access has been the presumption that setting ballot access criteria too low would result in numerous candidates on the ballot, splitting the votes of similar minded voters. Example: With Plurality voting, an old but common way to pick the winner, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the candidate does not have a majority of the votes. Suppose 55% liberals and 45% conservatives vote in a district. If two candidates appeal to liberals, but only one appeals to conservatives, the votes of liberals will likely split between the two liberal candidates, for example 25% may vote for one and 30% for the other, giving the conservative the office although 55% preferred to see a liberal in the office. Plurality races, also known as First past the post, tend to cause consolidation among political parties for this reason. However, proponents of ballot access reform say that reasonably easy access to the ballot does not lead to a glut of candidates, even where many candidates do appear on the ballot, as was the case in the crowded 2003 California recall. In that case, such actual crowding did not confuse voters: "Even though 135 candidates appeared on the ballot, newspapers reported that voters did not have trouble finding the candidate they wished to vote for."

Historically, there were generally no restrictions on ballot access in the United States until after the introduction of the so-called "Australian ballot" beginning in the 1880s. The 18th century prevalence of "voice voting" gave way to paper ballots, but until the 1880s paper ballots were not officially designed and printed by the government but were instead privately produced "tickets" that were distributed (usually by political parties) to the voter, who would take the ticket to the polling place and deposit it in the ballot box. The 1880s reform movement that led to officially designed secret ballots had some salutary effects, but it also gave the government control over who could be on the ballot. As historian Peter Argersinger has pointed out, the reform that conferred power on officials to regulate who may be on the ballot carried with it the danger that this power would be abused by officialdom and that legislatures controlled by established political parties (specifically, the Republican and Democratic Parties), would enact restrictive ballot access laws to influence election outcomes to ensure re-election of their own party's candidates.

Perhaps the most prominent advocate of the 1880s ballot reform movement, Dean Wigmore, suggested that "ten signatures" might be an appropriate requirement for nomination to the official ballot for a legislative office. In the 20th century, ballot access laws imposing signature requirements far more restrictive than Wigmore had envisioned were enacted by many state legislatures; in many cases, the two major parties wrote the laws in such a way that the burdens created by these new ballot access requirements (usually in the form of difficult signature-gathering nominating petition drives) fell on alternative candidates, but not on major party candidates. Proponents of more open ballot access argue that restricting access to the ballot has the effect of unjustly restricting the choices available to the voters and typically disadvantages third party candidates and other candidates who are not affiliated with the established parties.

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