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11th Circuit reinstates Georgia ballot-access rules for third parties

The Atlanta-based appeals court reversed a federal judge’s decision to temporarily lower signature requirements for third-party candidates from 5% to 1% of registered voters in the district.

ATLANTA (CN) — Reversing a lower court decision in favor of the Libertarian Party, the 11th Circuit on Wednesday restored signature requirements for third-party candidates to appear on the ballot.

The Libertarian Party challenged the ballot-access system, claiming its requirements for congressional campaigns "impose an unconstitutional burden" on candidates' rights protected by the First and 14th Amendments and it "imposes an unjustified classification between prospective Libertarian candidates for statewide office and those for non-statewide office."

Their claims were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Leigh May, a Barack Obama appointee, in 2019. The 11th Circuit first heard the appeal in May 2020 and sent the case back to the district court to decide whether the distinction between offices candidates are seeking violates the equal protection clause, and also to apply the so-called Anderson test to the constitutional claims.

On remand, May maintained her decision that the Libertarian Party suffered no equal protection violation, but this time she ruled for the party on its First and 14th Amendment claims. Her second ruling included an interim measure that lowered the signature requirements for third-party candidate seeking non-statewide office from 5% to 1% of registered voters in the district. Both the state and the party appealed.

In the second appellate hearing before the 11th Circuit in December, the Libertarian Party was told it must distinguish its claims from the 1971 case Jenness v. Fortson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the signature requirements did not violate voters’ and prospective candidates’ civil rights.

The Atlanta-based appeals court on Wednesday reversed May's decision to lower the signature threshold, restoring it to 5% for third-party candidates seeking non-statewide office.

"On remand, the Libertarian Party persuaded the district court that changed circumstances warranted a different result. But we are unconvinced," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, for a unanimous three-judge panel.

"True, some changes to Georgia’s ballot-access laws have occurred in the 50 years since Jenness. And the evidentiary record detailing the practical difficulties of gathering petition signatures may be more robust here than it was in that case," she added. "But to satisfactorily distinguish the claims, not just any difference from Jenness will do—the difference must be material
enough to transform Georgia’s ballot-access system from one that 'in no way freezes the status quo' to one that does. The Libertarian Party has not identified such a difference."

The Libertarian Party pointed out that no third-party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives has ever satisfied the 5% signature requirement to appear on Georgia's general election ballot. While the panel noted the threshold is higher than most states, the judges found it does not unlawfully bar candidates from getting on the ballot.

“Focusing only on the success of political-body candidates for one particular non-statewide office is unwarranted when other candidates—including independent candidates and those running for other non-statewide offices—must meet the same 5% threshold,” Grant wrote.

The 11th Circuit judges also disagreed with the Libertarian Party's argument of gathering signatures being challenging and costly, noting that any registered voter in Georgia can sign as many nominating petitions as they want and the 180-day filing deadline was found to be reasonable under Jenness.

"The Libertarian Party offers evidence to show that collecting petition signatures is costly and difficult. It is no surprise that parties must 'undergo expense' to accumulate required petition signatures," the ruling states. "But the Libertarian Party has not shown that the endeavor is significantly more challenging than it was 50 years ago."

Grant was joined on the panel by Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor and U.S. Circuit Judge Hull, appointed by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively.

Neither the Libertarian Party nor the Georgia Secretary of State's Office immediately responded to requests for comment.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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