Third Parties Challenge Hurdles to Ballot Access in Texas

AUSTIN (CN) – Complaining that it costs over $600,000 to collect signatures to get on a general election ballot in Texas, the Libertarian Party and others sued the state in federal court Thursday alleging its election laws favor Republicans and Democrats in races for statewide office.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

“For the last 50 years, the state of Texas has denied voters their right to cast their votes effectively by enforcing a statutory scheme that guarantees ballot access to the two oldest and largest political parties at taxpayer expense, while imposing ever-greater burdens on their potential competitors,” the lawsuit states. “This de facto financial barrier to participation is all but insurmountable for non-wealthy candidates and parties.”

The plaintiffs in the 31-page complaint, filed in Austin federal court, include the Libertarian, Constitution and Green Parties and six third-party and independent candidates for statewide office. They are represented by lead attorney David Whittlesey with Shearman & Sterling.

Plaintiff Mark Miller, of Hays County, said the lawsuit was filed “to restore and protect the right of all Texas voters to cast their votes effectively for the candidates of their choice.” He previously ran for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission as a Libertarian.

“We represent a wide range of political views, but one point on which we all agree is that every citizen has an equal right to participate in Texas elections,” Miller said in a statement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a statement it looks forward “to successfully defending Texas’ reasonable and long-standing ballot-access measures in court.”

The third parties and candidates say state law provides three ways to get on the general election ballot. First, a political party must receive at least 20% of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election – something only the Democrats and Republicans have qualified for “since at least 1900,” according to the complaint.

Second, a third party can nominate a candidate at a convention with at least 1% of Texans who voted for governor in the last election. The plaintiffs claim this means a third party would need at least 83,717 convention participants to qualify this way, a burden so high that no party has done so “in at least 50 years.”

Texas law allows such candidates to still get on the ballot if they can collect the same number of signatures within a 75-day period. The plaintiffs argue the small window and restrictions on signatures made the option burdensome.

“Among the most significant are the provisions that prohibit voters from signing nomination petitions until after the primary election, and that renders voters ineligible to participate in precinct conventions or sign nomination petitions if they vote in a primary election,” the complaint states. “These provisions place non-primary parties at a significant disadvantage, by giving primary parties a first, exclusive right to solicit voters’ support, at a time when non-primary parties are prohibited by law from formally affiliating them via convention or by obtaining their signatures on a nomination petition.”

Third, independent candidates can get on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures from at least 1% of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. The plaintiffs argue that these candidates cannot circulate their petitions until after primary and run-off primary elections are over.

“Thus, in 2020, independents seeking state office have either 30 days or 114 days to collect signatures, depending on the outcome of races over which they have no control,” the complaint states. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies.”

Miller said collecting the required number of valid signatures in such a tight window “is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

The plaintiffs claim their rights to political speech and casting their votes effectively are being violated, as well as their equal protection rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They contend the applicable sections of the laws are unconstitutional and seek a permanent injunction against the Texas secretary of state, a currently vacant position, from enforcing them.

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