For elections to be fair and legitimate, voters must have meaningful choices. The United States Supreme Court has held that states cannot excessively restrict choices on the general election ballot, for example by imposing harsh signature gathering requirements. However, the Court has not yet clarified what limits exist and a new case from California may test the limit and provide further clarity.
2016 and (potential 2020) independent presidential candidate Rocky De La Fuente and advocates for expanding ballot access for independent candidates have filed a writ of certiorari asking the justices to consider how best to weigh a state’s interests in regulating ballot access against the nation’s interests in presidential elections. The Supreme Court will decide later month if it will hear the case.
California’s independent presidential candidate petition laws are some of the strictest in the nation. State law requires independent candidates running for statewide office to collect signatures from one percent of all registered voters. In 2016, De La Fuente calculated that collecting the nearly 200,000 required signatures on a confusing and lengthy form in only 105 days would cost between three and four million dollars, a substantial burden on his campaign and one that would be impossible to overcome by all but independently wealthy candidates. In fact, no independent presidential candidate has been on the ballot in California since 1992 when billionaire Ross Perot received over two-million votes in California.
These laws were upheld last year by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit because the court found the signature threshold do not significantly impair ballot access and are within the state’s regulatory interests of streamlining the ballot, avoiding ballot overcrowding, and reducing voter confusion.
This decision stands in stark contrast to other federal courts and sets up a circuit split ripe for the Supreme Court to step in. For example, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit have found that a similar law requiring the same level of support as too high of a burden on independent candidates. Georgia’s a one-percent signature threshold for independent candidates was overturned because it exceeded the constitutionally required “modicum of support” for candidates to gain ballot access and protect the state’s interests.
While California has the right to regulate its democratic process, it should not be able to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of independent presidential candidates. Allowing these candidates access to the ballot is necessary to promoting free and open discussions and a diversity of political views. The Supreme Court should grant certiorari to hear the case and rule once and for all that states cannot discriminate against independent candidates.