In mid-February, Florida’s Division of Elections stripped the state’s third largest political party of its official recognition. Tallahassee’s excuse for ending the Independent Party’s ability to put candidates on the ballot and disenfranchising its 260,000-plus registered voters? The party organization’s 2014 financial audit wasn’t conducted by a Certified Public Accountant.
Florida law doesn’t specify any such CPA requirement, and even if it did this dirty trick would exemplify the real purpose of so-called “ballot access laws”: To safeguard the Republican and Democratic Parties’ near-complete control of American elections.
In every election cycle, “third” parties shell out big bucks just to be allowed to present their candidates to voters. According to Nicholas J. Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian Party’s national committee, the party, its state affiliates, and its presidential campaign spent more than $750,000 on ballot access — that is, on jumping through bureaucratic hoops instead of on getting its message out — in 2016.
It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way. And it wasn’t always that way.
Some histories of the Civil War era mention that Abraham Lincoln was “not even on the ballot” in several southern states. That’s true. None of the other presidential candidates were “on the ballot” either, nor was Lincoln “on the ballot” in the northern states. There was no such thing as “on the ballot.”
American ballot access laws only date back to the 1880s. Before that, voters cast ballots in one of three ways: They received ballots from and printed by their political parties of choice, they wrote out their own ballots by hand, or, if they couldn’t write, they verbally dictated their choices to election officials who wrote down those choices for them in the presence of witnesses.
Once state governments overthrew those methods in favor of “Australian” ballots — standardized ballots printed by the governments themselves — the next step was feigned concern over “voter confusion” from “too many” candidates, quickly followed by the erection of barriers to “solve” the “problem.”
These days ballot access laws are so many, so varied and so confusing that there’s an entire industry centered around helping parties and candidates interpret and meet the guidelines. There’s even a dedicated publication, Ballot Access News, dedicated to sorting out ballot access laws on a continuing basis.
And, once again, it’s important to keep in mind the real purpose of these laws: To ensure that, with rare exceptions, only Republicans and Democrats are elected to public office. Or, to put it more plainly, to protect those parties from the risks of free and fair elections.
The states and the establishment parties have proven, over and over, that they can’t be trusted with control of ballot access. Time to take that control away.