When you head into the voting booth this November, you’ll be presented with a very specific slate of candidates. You’ll see many Democratic and Republican party candidates for various offices, but you also may see a selection of third party candidates, or even an unaffiliated candidate or two.
How did these candidates get on the ballot? Why are they in particular on the ballot, while others who may have been running don’t appear? For that matter, how do the candidates of the two major parties get on the ballot? The answers to these questions depend on your state’s ballot access laws.
Ballot access laws, which vary by state, set the requirements of what a candidate or party must do in order to appear on the election ballot.
The rules are a little different for parties and individual candidates- in most states, a party can achieve ballot access for itself, ensuring ballot space for its entire slate of nominees. This is part of what can make a major party (or any party with access) attractive to office seekers.
Typically, for a party to receive this automatic ballot access for their candidates they must either have a certain number of people registered to their party, or have had one of their candidates receive a certain percentage of the vote in a previous election.
In Alabama, a party must receive at least 20 percent of the vote in a general election to qualify for ballot access. Only two parties- Democratic and Republican- have met this standard for statewide ballot access.
The Democratic and Republican parties are also the only two with statewide access in Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.
In the other thirty-eight states, three or more parties have ballot access. In New York, up to eight parties appear on the ballot statewide. In order to maintain their ballot access, these parties simply need to field a candidate for governor who wins at least fifty thousand votes. Therefore, less than two percent of the votes cast in the most recent New York gubernatorial election would be enough support for a party to qualify for ballot access in the next election.
In any state where a party has gained ballot access, a candidate who wins that party's nomination will appear on the ballot in that state. The Democratic and Republican parties are the only states to have ballot access in every state in which it is offered, and are recognized in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
The Libertarian Party is the only other party to be recognized by the majority of states (31), with the Green Party being recognized by almost half the states (21) and the Constitution Party being recognized in by thirteen.
No other party is recognized by more than five states. Of course, access to the ballot in multiple states is only a problem for federal office-seekers- if you want to be governor of Minnesota, the fact that the Grassroots Party is recognized only in Minnesota (where it achieved recognition by receiving one percent of the vote statewide and at least one vote in each county, and maintains ballot access by presenting petitions signed by a number equal to one percent of the vote in the last election) isn't a problem.
But what about candidate who don't win the nomination of a recognized party, or don't want to? To qualify to appear on the ballot individually, a candidate will typically have to submit petitions with enough signatures to qualify. Again, the number of signatures needed vary by state.
For instance, Georgia requires signatures of five percent of all registered voters in the jurisdiction in which the candidate is running. That is, if you want to run as an independent for mayor, you'll need a petition with the signatures of five percent of people eligible to vote in the Savannah mayoral election. Georgia's rule has been called the most restrictive such law in the country-- North Carolina and Illinois have similar requirements.
Other states, again, are much more lenient- for instance, an independent candidate for governor in New Hampshire needs only 3,000 signatures to gain ballot access- or less than half a single percent of the voters eligible to vote in the last gubernatorial election there.
It’s not always easy for a candidate to get their name on the ballot, particularly if they run without the support of a party. There may be candidates who run their entire campaigns without many voters ever seeing their name-- but luckily for you, you can find every candidate running in your district, for any party or independently, ballot qualified or write in, right here on votesmart.org! To learn how to register to vote in your state, visit http://votesmart.org/elections/voter-registration.
David Conway is a student at St. John’s College, majoring in Liberal Arts. He was an intern with Vote Smart in the Speeches Department. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.